“I think I’ve been hitting the ball hard,” Josh Bell told reporters earlier this month, “... just not in the right places.” Bell, 28, was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates this winter to provide a bit of protection for Juan Soto and some pop in the middle of the lineup.
He got off to a good start with his new team, tearing the cover off the ball in his first Spring Training with a club other than the Pirates, who drafted him in the 2nd round of 2011’s Draft and developed him. He finished up Grapefruit League action 18 for 47 (.383/.456/.872) with five doubles and six home runs in 18 games, but as GM Mike Rizzo said, spring stats really mean, “absolutely nothing.”
“We like where he is,” Rizzo said before Opening Day. “We like where his mechanics are.
“We like his bat speed. We like his work at first base. We like the player, that’s why we traded for him. But his batting average and his home runs in Spring Training, they go away starting [opening] night. But I do like the way he looks at the plate. I like his confidence and his swagger, not only at the plate, but in the field. And what he brings to the clubhouse has exceeded my expectations.”
Unfortunately, Bell was one of the players placed in quarantine before Opening Day, when a number of Nationals tested positive and another group were identified in contact tracing.
Bell missed six games while waiting to be cleared to return, and he couldn’t do much while he waited.
“I had the pitching machine in my house and then I couldn’t really get outside to play catch or anything,” Bell said, though he wasn’t blaming the layoff for his slow start.
“I don’t think I’ve missed a beat there, I did a lot of hard work in Spring Training and it seems to be paying off.”
But he has gotten off to a sluggish start this season, going 5 for 34 (.147/.231/.294) in his first 10 games, with two doubles and a home run, three walks, and 12 strikeouts.
“Some of the swings I’ve been taking have a little bit of extra loft, kind of lost that shortness to the baseball,” Bell said after hitting an opposite field, run-scoring double during the Nats’ recent homestand.
“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.”
He’s been putting in the work behind the scenes with Nationals’ hitting coaches Kevin Long and Pat Roessler as he tries to get things going at the plate, with positive feedback from the two of them.
“I got a little bit of extra work in with ‘Six’ and K-Long and they were telling he, ‘Hey, stay right there. You’re hitting the ball hard. If you want to make a tiny tweak adjustment on game plan you can do that,’ but they like where my swings are at.
“And so I’m just going to stay right here. I think that when I do hit mistakes they’re going to be going hard.
“I just have been fouling them off for now, so hopefully I can turn that around.”
“Obviously the results aren’t there,” he added, “... but I think the workday, like how I feel in the cage, how my batting practice looks, everything seems pretty synced up.
“I think that obviously in the game you don’t want to have fastballs beat you and you can’t really simulate that aside from in-game work.
“I feel like there’s not too much that I have to change right now. You might call it luck or whatever it might be, if I keep hitting balls hard eventually they’re going to find holes.”
Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez has talked over Bell’s first ten games about waiting to see the slugger get his timing down as he sees more pitches and builds back up after the time off.
“For me, it’s all about getting ready early and seeing the ball earlier,” Martinez explained.
“He’s working diligently, he’s taking a lot of swings. Sometimes you see where he’s on time, and sometimes he’s a little bit behind.
“It’s just a matter of time when everything clicks and he starts becoming on time like he was when we left Spring Training.
“I mean, that’s the best, in Spring Training, that’s the best I’ve seen him swing in a long time, so he’ll get there, I know he’ll get there. Hopefully tomorrow he hits some balls hard and we get him there.
“But he’s working hard, I know he’s doing everything he can to help us win and I appreciate that.”