When Josh Bell arrived in the nation’s capital, the Washington Nationals were hoping that he would be a key piece in a revamped lineup that struggled during the shortened 2020 season.
In five seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bell slashed .261/.349/.466 with 86 home runs, good for a 116 OPS+ in that time. That includes a 2019 season where he was a National League All-Star and borderline MVP candidate during the first half of the season.
And while Spring Training stats don’t count for much, the Nationals may have started to salivate a little given how locked in Bell looked at the plate.
In his first spring with his new team, he finished with a monster 1.328 OPS and six home runs in 47 at-bats.
Unfortunately, Bell was one of the players who was placed on the COVID IL to start the season after the team was struck with a coronavirus outbreak, delaying his start to 2021.
The slugging first baseman was finally able to make his Nationals debut in St. Louis last week. However, with no rehab assignment, he and some of the other players who returned from the COVID IL were a little sluggish out of the gates after not seeing live pitching for a couple of weeks.
Through his first 25 at-bats with the Nationals, Bell has a measly .120/.207/.200 slash line with just two extra-base hits and a couple of RBIs while striking out nine times and walking three.
Despite the paltry start, his manager, Dave Martinez, thinks Bell isn’t far off getting back to the scorching form the first baseman displayed this spring.
“What I see is that his timing — once again, his timing is a little bit off,” Martinez told reporters ahead of the series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“The balls that he was hitting in Spring Training, he’s just fouling off.
“Once we get that timing figured out, I think you’re going to see Josh hit the ball like he did in Spring Training. And he’s close. He’s real close. He’s working on it.
“Yesterday he did a lot of work in the cage. He pinch-hit [Sunday]. He worked a good at-bat, even though he struck out, he worked a good at-bat, but it’s just a matter of time that he starts putting those balls he’s fouling off into play.”
Throughout Bell’s career, his timing at the plate has been a huge factor in his play.
With a long swing that has a lot of moving parts, he needs to make sure everything is synced up and that he starts his swing motion in time to keep up with the speed of major league pitching.
This is one of the reasons why Bell has been a bit of a streaky hitter so far in his MLB career.
Take 2019 as a prime example. That season, according to FanGraphs, Bell had three months with a wRC+ of 135 or better in March/April, May, and August, while his wRC+ was either 102 or below in the other three months of the season.
After not seeing big-league pitches in two weeks, it was understandable, perhaps even somewhat expected that Bell would take a little while to get acclimatized to it again.
“I think for him, he’s got a lot going on in his swing,” Martinez explained. “But when it clicks, he’ll get it and he’ll take off.
“The one thing I like about him is he does work good at-bats, and he’s a guy, as we’ve talked about before, he’s not afraid, when he’s going good, he knows that strike zone better than any one of our hitters, so he’ll take his walks.
“We often talk to him a lot about that. When you don’t feel like you’re getting hits, don’t push the envelope, you’re going to get your hits, but take your walks, that’s going to help you a lot, take your walks.”
Perhaps Monday night’s game against the Cardinals might’ve been the start of a turnaround.
Though the box score only shows just a 1-for-5 night with an opposite-field double, his three batted balls were all hit hard with exit velocities of 105.3mph, 109.7mph, and 107.8mph, per Statcast.
“I think I’ve been hitting the ball hard, just not in the right places,” Bell said after the game.
“Some of the swings I’ve been taking have a little bit of extra loft, kind of lost that shortness to the baseball, but it was nice to get on top of that ball and hit it down the line today and hopefully I can build off of that.”
Though the Nationals have been able to get by with Bell as a passenger for now, sooner or later, their big offseason acquisition is going to have to start hitting like the player the team thought they were getting to provide some consistency on the offensive side of the ball.
If he does turn it around, then Bell hopes to be a big part of a potent Nationals’ lineup this year.
“I think that when our offense is rolling we’re going to put runs on the board,” Bell explained.
“When our starters are going out there and doing what we know they can do, they’re going to be going six-seven strong day in and day out.
“We just got to get going on both sides of the ball and try to get after it tomorrow.”