New Washington Nationals’ first baseman Josh Bell is determined to bounce back at the plate in 2021, after a down year offensively for the 28-year-old who was acquired from a rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates club on Christmas Eve. Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo, on Zoom after the deal, said he and his staff in the nation’s capital looked closely at Bell’s 2020 at bats and then developed a plan to help get him back to being the sort of hitter he was in 2019.
Bell put up a combined .261/.349/.466 line with a 162-game average of 31 doubles and 25 home runs in his five seasons with the Pirates, who drafted him out of high school in the 2nd Round in 2011.
He had a .277/.367/.569 line with career highs in doubles (37) and home runs (37) over 143 games and 613 PAs in a 2.5 fWAR season in 2019, but followed that up with a less-than-stellar 60-game COVID campaign, finishing 2020 at .226/.305/.364 with three doubles and eight home runs in 57 games and 223 plate appearances, in a -0.4 fWAR season.
“Analytically they loved him,” Rizzo said of the feedback he received from others in the front office in Washington before the trade was completed.
“They love Josh, they loved his performance before,” the GM added, “... they think he’s a big bounce-back candidate to get back towards those ‘19 numbers.
“We’ll study his swing, and [Hitting Coach Kevin Long] and [manager] Davey [Martinez] are as good as there is in the business on tweaking and making guys maximize their ability.”
“We think that we’ve identified a few things,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got a plan in place for him. We’re certainly not going to share it with anybody on the call, but we have a distinct and definitive plan in place and K-Long will be reaching out to Josh in the near future if he hasn’t already and K-Long and Davey will get with Josh long before Spring Training and set up a program and a thought process and an offensive plan of attack well before they get to West Palm.”
Asked to diagnose his own struggles in a 2020 season, which saw him put up a career-high K% (26.5%), a career-low BB% (9.9%), a career-high Ground Ball% (55.7% GB%; which was up from 44.0% in 2019), and the highest Swinging Strike % (13.9%) of his career.
“Yeah, so looking back at this past year, I think that things got long,” Bell explained.
“I feel like I was kind of drifting into my front side just a little bit more than I’d like to. Wasn’t necessarily — I guess the expression is, ‘If you’re going to watch a movie, would you rather watch it from the back seat of the movie theater or the front seat?’ Obviously you would want to watch it from the back seat, so I was just kind of jumping towards the ball, and that doesn’t play at this level.
“Doesn’t play with guys with high velo, and just without video and things like that, to really be able to dive in at bat to at bat, I wasn’t making the adjustments in game that I’d like to.
“So yeah, things kind of just sped up on me for a little bit, but I was looking up 30 games into the season I was hitting .180, something I’ve never done, but across the league, you saw different guys doing the same thing, so struggles across the board, but some people raked.
“You see that in [Juan] Soto, he had a blast last year, obviously, so hopefully next year I can be a part of that group and turn things around.”
The odd nature of the 2020 campaign, with the shutdown in the middle of Spring Training 1.0 in mid-March and the quick ramp-up for the 60-game sprint in July, didn’t help Bell get ready for the season, he said, and he’s looking to get back into a more regular routine this Spring, assuming that things go as planned for the baseball (and rest of the) world.
“It was tough, especially for me with the lockdown and everything, I was in Pittsburgh. I was virtually by myself in regards to baseball training,” Bell said from his parents home in Irving, TX.
“I had the ability to hit on like a Hit-A-Way, but in regards to like hand-eye coordination, kind of lacked for a few months. I know that this year, I pray that there’s not going to be any more lockdowns or shutdowns or anything like that, so just being able to prepare — being able to — I’ve got a couple of pitching machines in my garage that I can set up, I’ve got a couple different places that I can hit at in Dallas here, so just being able to prepare the way that I’d like to leading up into Spring Training and then get all the full at bats, the live ABs that one could ask for, I’m definitely excited for ‘21 being a lot more normal than ‘20 was.”
Getting back into his routine from previous seasons, he said, will definitely be a good way to start getting back on track.
“I think that Spring Training kind of came and went and then the season started and I wasn’t in a good enough place to get a solid footing to get things going,” Bell said of his 2020 run, “... but you live and you learn, and it’s definitely a tough year. Didn’t have the results that we wanted to as a team collectively, so hopefully that doesn’t happen next year.”
Where will Bell hit in the Nationals’ lineup? Rizzo said last week that that’s a question for the Nats’ skipper, but the club acquired the switch-hitting power bat to hit in the middle of their lineup in 2021.
“He fits in the middle of that lineup somewhere for us, and being a switch-hitter only adds to his value as far as keeping the lineup long,” Rizzo said, “making it more manageable for the field manager, and a guy that we have high expectations for, and we’ve looked at a lot of tape on him. I know Kevin Long has studied him since we alerted him that this was going to be a possibility and he’s ready to touch base with Josh and put a plan together and get working with him really soon.”