The start of Josh Bell’s first season in D.C., following the Christmas Eve 2020 trade with Pittsburgh that brought him over from the Pirates, did not go well. Bell, who turned 29 in August, went on the COVID-IL before Opening Day, and struggled once he returned to the lineup, putting up a .156/.219/.333 line with five doubles, four home runs, seven walks, and 30 Ks in his first 26 games and 105 plate appearances with Washington.
Then the 6’4’’, 255-pound, switch-hitting slugger turned things around though, and from the middle of May through the end of the year, the six-year veteran posted a .286/.376/.510 line, 19 doubles, 23 home runs, 58 walks, and 71 Ks in 118 games and 463 PAs.
“I said this before,” Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez told reporters as the 2021 season wound down,
“From where he started to where he is now, it’s been unbelievable. I mean, for me, he’s been one of the best consistent players in the league, and his numbers show that right now.
“His OPS is over .800, which is amazing from where he started.”
Bell finished the year with an .823 OPS, the second-highest of his career.
Asked about turning things around and what the difference was once he got going, Bell said it was all about, “staying behind balls.”
“I’m not jumping forward, making early contact. So just being able to get balls in the air to center field, and left-center, that’s definitely a good sign.”
He went through a rough stretch in early-to-mid August as well, but came out of that too, and over the last 44 games and 194 PAs, Bell put up a .306/.433/.516 line.
“I think I was just jumping forward just a little bit, trying to make too much happen,” Bell said after getting through that rough patch.
“Just trying to get back to feeling comfortable with if I’m going to foul a ball off deep, that’s okay, live to see another pitch.
“But if I jump out there and make bad contact out in front, that’s just an out every time.”
Bell’s manager had his own thoughts.
“I think, for me honestly, it’s just him getting ready on time and seeing the ball a little earlier than he was, as opposed to earlier in the season,” Martinez said at the time.
“He’s another guy, when he gets the ball in the zone, he hits the ball really, really hard, as we all know, so and that was the key focus. Him and Juan [Soto], and a lot of the other guys, you know, we preached a lot on just putting the ball in play and trying to cut down on strikeouts, and he took it to heart, and he gets up there, especially with two strikes, he’s battling to get a ball in the zone, he’s fouling off good pitches, when he does get that ball in the zone, he’s hitting it hard.”
The way Bell turned things around impressed Martinez.
“It’s not easy,” Martinez said. “The numbers are there. You try not to focus on them, and I tried to engage with him, especially early, about ‘Don’t worry about where you’re at now, let’s worry about where you finish, and I believe that you’re going to finish very strong.
“And just keep pushing every day. Every at-bat is different, every day, so just keep pushing every day, work good at bats, and by the end of the year, you’ll have your .260/.270 [AVG], 30 [HRs], and 80 or 90 RBIs, maybe more, and don’t worry about it.’
“And he actually started playing and not really focusing on the numbers, you know, but it’s always there. I told him, I said, ‘Hey, if you could take away the month of April when I played, I would have been one heck of a player.’ Because I’m not going to lie, I stunk in April, and lot of times I talked to the manager, I said, ‘Don’t play me in April, wait till May, and I’m going to be really, really good.’ And they’d laugh and say, ‘No, you got to play in April.’
“But I told him, I said, ‘Don’t look back, keep pushing forward.’ And he’s been great.”
Bell ended up being exactly what GM Mike Rizzo expected when he acquired him from the Pirates.
“The numbers were what I expected,” Rizzo said over the final weekend of the season.
“Not what you guys expected, obviously, and he’s been terrific for us all season, he had a terrific Spring Training, then got sidetracked with COVID and I think he —that he turned the naysayers early in the season into believers, and as a guy that at 28, 29 years old, and a career .800 OPS, and that was the player we traded for and that’s the player we got. Beyond that his impact in the clubhouse is irreplaceable. He’s been terrific in the clubhouse, and he’s been a mentor for the young players, and he’s a shining example of what a big leaguer should be.”