Josh Bell’s Barrel% is up (14.7% this season, from 8.6% in 2020’s 60-game campaign). Bell’s average exit velocity is up (at 92.6 MPH, from 91.7 last year), and his Hard Hit% (52.9%) is up from any year in his six major league seasons. So when his coaches are telling him to stick with what he’s doing and trust the process even though the results haven’t been there early this season, should he take solace in stats like the ones listed above?
“Back when I was playing, I would have probably looked at the guy and said, ‘Hey, does that equal a hit or an out?’” Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez joked when he talked about trying to get Washington’s 28-year-old first baseman going at the plate.
“That’s what I want to know, yeah. As you know, our business is all driven by numbers and success rate, that’s — these guys want to see the balls drop.
“I was happy hitting the ball 78 MPH and bloop the ball over the shortstop’s head and being on base for my teammates. They always say they even out. I find that hard to believe as a hitter, but you know, if we get some of those for Josh I think that will help him out a lot.”
Bell started Tuesday’s game in an 0 for 17 slump, with a .109/.192/.217 line in 13 games and 52 PAs since he came off the COVID-IL in time to play in the Nationals’ seventh game of the 2021 campaign.
He had two doubles and a home run in that stretch, over which he’d walked four times and struck out in 17 PAs.
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“He’s taking swings and he’s just missing balls. I talked about this yesterday, the balls that he was hitting really hard in Spring Training, he’s fouling off,” Martinez said.
Bell tore the cover off the ball in Grapefruit League action, going 18 for 47 (.383/.456/.872) with five doubles and six home runs in 18 games, but that’s Spring Training, of course, and he couldn’t do much during the time off before he was reinstated from the COVID-IL. With more at bats, Martinez has stressed, Bell’s timing will return.
“He knows that. He feels it. Now it’s just a matter of getting that timing and like I said, his swing has a lot of moving parts.
“So, once he hones in on that and he gets on time every pitch, you’ll see him starting to hit the ball hard consistently and those balls will drop. He’s just — like I said, he’s just missing balls.
“The one thing I emphasized with him today was just to take his walks. Keep the ball in the strike zone and take his walks.
“He’s really good when he takes his walks and swings at strikes.”
Martinez was also trying to keep Bell from pressing, advising him to just stick with what he was doing, swing at strikes, and wait for hits to start falling in.
“When you go through a period like this, your mindset is to always hit, hit, hit, hit, hit, hit,” the manager said.
“You want to get that hit. You kind of want to get four hits with one swing. So you got to kind of backtrack a little bit and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m going to be patient, I’m going to be ready for a pitch that I know I can hit. And try to not miss it.’ That’s the thing, when you start doing that you’re on time all the time and you’ll start hitting those balls. For him, like I said, you can see a little frustration when he takes a swing and fouls off the ball he knows he should hit. I can see it a little bit in his face, and I told him, ‘Hey, if you miss it, just get back in the at bat and get to that next pitch,’ and like I said, try to swing at balls in the strike zone.”
Bell was up to 0 for 19 before he got hold of a 94 MPH 2-1 fastball up and in from Toronto Blue Jays’ reliever Ty Tice and hit it out to left-center for an opposite field, two-run home run, his second of the season in 14 games.
“It was great to see him get that home run,” Martinez said after the Nationals’ 8-2 win over the Blue Jays on Wednesday. “He had some good at bats today.
“Like I said earlier, I just want him to relax, go out there and see some pitches and have some fun. Today, he took some really good swings today, and that was impressive.”
“He’s been hitting the ball really well the last week or so,” Trea Turner said after his own four-hit game in the second of two with the Toronto.
“He’s been lining out or he’s been hitting the ball really hard. I think he’s been having good at bats, he’s just barely missing pitches.
“First at bat tonight he almost hit a home run to dead center. I think he’s really close.”
Bell, who said after the first game with Toronto that he felt like he was close as well, said he was just focused on squaring pitches up and controlling what he can control.
“I felt like I was really close, I just got to keep hitting balls off the barrel. I know that’s when I do damage, just try to sync up with the pitchers and eventually one is going to travel a little bit further than the fence, so hopefully there’s more to come,” he said.
From the left side of the plate, the switch-hitter explained, he felt like he, “... was just kind of traveling just a bit much. Just trying to maybe do a little bit more than I should. And that at bat I just backed up ball a little bit more, was able to spit on the slider inside early, one that he bounced, and then the fastball kind of got in on me, but I was able to stay inside and go the other way.”
Asked if the underlying stats which showed he was making good contact even if it wasn’t resulting in hits helped him keep grinding away as he struggled, Bell said, “Obviously, I feel like when you’re up and you’re hitting balls hard and you get those slaps on the butt on the way back into the dugout, like, ‘Hey, stay right there, keep swinging it,’ it’s a lot easier.
“Losses obviously makes it a lot more tough, but overall atmosphere right now in the cages and with the coaches, they’re like, ‘Hey, just keep fighting for quality at bats, one after another and the next 50 are going to be a lot better than the first 50, but flush it right now and on to the next pitch.’”
Connecting on his second home run of the season did provide a confidence boost.
“Obviously I want way more hits than I’ve gotten,” Bell said, “but I think that adversity is something that is going to make me stronger. I think I’ve got work through it, and then towards the end of the year I’m going to be thankful for it.
“And just knowing who I am, at the end of the year I’m definitely going to grow from this.”