When the Washington Nationals acquired Josh Bell, they were hoping for power and run production. In hushed tones, however, many wondered whether Bell could be the man the Nats wanted him to be.
After a bustling first half of 2019, Bell’s stock reached an all-time high in Pittsburgh. Heading into the All-Star break, Bell, the Pirates’ All-Star representative, had crushed 27 homers, generated a 145 wRC+, produced a .394 wOBA, and accrued 2.1 fWAR for the Pirates. After the break, Bell’s production dwindled. He ended the season with 37 home runs, his wRC+ fell to 135, and he only gained 0.3 fWAR the rest of the way.
Aside from his productive first half of 2019, Bell has mostly been a middling to pretty good player in Major League Baseball. His career fWAR stands at 3.6 in nearly 600 games played at this level. His 112 career wRC+ is above average and he’s mashed just south of 100 home runs as of this writing (92).
So, when Bell began his 2021 campaign with a new organization, hopes were high – but he got off to a sluggish start. Sluggish is probably being kind, as Bell labored through the first month and a half of games at a dreadful pace.
Through his first 24 games in DC, Bell was striking out 30.9 percent of the time, while carrying a .140/.202/.326 slash line. He was the holder of a lousy 42 wRC+ and produced -0.4 fWAR. His production was bearing out was skeptics feared was true.
But over the last two weeks, Bell looked as though he could be finding his stroke. Over that time (11 games), Bell has a .448 BABIP, .463 OBP, and .622 SLG. He’s generated a hefty 196 wRC+ and 0.6 wins above replacement in that time, as well.
This surge shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Bell has some gaudy percentile rankings in Baseball Savant’s measurements. For example, his average exit velocity is in the 98th percentile, while his maximum exit velocity is in the 87th percentile; his hard hit percentage is in the 99th percentile.
With those numbers, you have to wonder, then, if Bell, whose BABIP on the season is .253 (.148 during his first 94 plate appearances), was simply suffering from a spell of bad luck and whether those fortunes are changing. When you hit the ball that hard, good things are bound to happen – it’s just a matter of time.
After the Nats acquired Bell, I wrote a piece for this site projecting that his production would likely fall somewhere between his hot first half of 2019 and his rough 2020 season with the Pirates (-0.4 fWAR). In his first taste of action as a National, he looked a lot more like the latter guy – or worse. But things might be heating up for Bell, and it can’t come at a moment too soon.
The Nationals need production from the guys they thought they could count on. For this team to be productive, players like Trea Turner and Juan Soto have to hit like we know they can, with the former leaping through hurdles thus far as if they aren’t there; newcomers like Bell and Kyle Schwarber have to produce a power stroke that matches their potential.
With the Nats four games under .500, things could be bleaker in the nation’s capital. Nobody in the NL East seems willing to really take hold of the division, which means the last place Nationals (4.0 games back) are still primed to make a run at a division title, which might be more likely an occurrence than securing a Wild Card berth. Once this team meshes and expected contributors become actual contributors, we could see a very different on-field product.
Don’t expect Bell’s numbers over the last two weeks to keep trending that way, though. His production will likely settle into the historical trends he’s posted to this point in his career. If I had to attach number to it, I would expect him to reach the mid-20s in home runs, while generating approximately a 115 wRC+ and contributing just under 1.0 fWAR to the Nationals’ cause.