What's behind Josh Bell's improvement?

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington Nationals blew everything up and traded away most of their veterans late last week, there was one player some expected to be on the move that stayed. 28-year-old first baseman Josh Bell was in a different situation than most of the players that moved before the deadline, as he does have one year of club control remaining. Based on his $6.35 million salary for this season, it's reasonable to assume that he'll likely settle somewhere in the $10 million range for 2022.

The real question, however, is whether or not the Nationals should consider committing to Bell for a longer term. After the trades the Nats made between Thursday and Friday, it's clear that they've given up on contending this season. It would also seem unlikely that they're going to have a dramatic and quick turnaround that sees them on the brink of contention in 2022. In most rebuilding scenarios, however, it's good to keep a handful of veterans around on the big league roster. They should serve a few primary functions.

  1. Generally speaking, you want a few positive veteran clubhouse presences to help groom and develop the young players on the roster.
  2. As someone who is not a local fan, I often overlook this one. You have to give the fans a reason to come to games. Having a player with a likable personality is useful in this regard, but having a few players who are good enough so that the club will win more than one or two games a week is equally important.
  3. While you don't want a veteran to block a top prospect who is ready for the majors, it's often useful to have players on the team that can be a placeholder until a top prospect is ready.
Some of these things are harder to quantify than others. As a non-local fan, it's hard for me to know just how good a clubhouse presence Bell is. He seems like a good dude. He's always smiling. The broadcasts always tell me about the Josh Bell Book Club, which leads me to believe he's developed a rapport with the fans and the community. He checks those boxes off. The Nationals did acquire some quality prospects at the deadline (as well as signing top draft pick Brady House!), but there's nobody in the system at first base who is knocking on the door. Another box checked.

That leads us to the key question. Is Josh Bell a good enough player so that he's worth re-signing to a multi-year deal? Let's see what the numbers tell us.

2016 45 152 .273 .368 .406 3 18 19 13.8% 12.5% 21.4% 50.0% 28.6%
2017 159 620 .255 .334 .466 26 75 90 10.6% 18.9% 17.7% 51.1% 31.2%
2018 148 583 .261 .357 .411 12 74 62 13.2% 17.8% 19.0% 48.5% 32.5%
2019 143 613 .277 .367 .569 37 94 116 12.1% 19.2% 18.8% 44.0% 37.3%
2020 57 223 .226 .305 .364 8 22 22 9.9% 26.5% 18.6% 55.7% 25.7%
2021 88 326 .248 .310 .473 17 48 53 8.0% 21.8% 20.6% 51.3% 28.1%

Let's start out by saying that while his batting average fluctuated a bit in his first three seasons, part of the reason for the decline in year two was probably based on the improved power. While his strikeout rate settled in at a reasonable 18.9%, the line drives were down and the fly balls were up. While fly balls are the most likely batted balls to be home runs, they're also the most likely ones to be turned into outs. It wasn't a horrible decline, and it seemed like he might just settle in as a .260-.270 hitter after those first few seasons.

The next concern would be the 2018 power decline. At the time, it seemed like his drop from 26 to 12 homers was just a bit of an overcorrection than anything else. He'd never hit more than 14 homers in any minor league season. He'd never had an ISO higher than .174 during his tenure in the minors. For his ISO to suddenly jump from .133 in 2016 to .211 in his first full season in the majors was a bit of a shock. I remember hearing Bell was a guy who would probably hit 20-25 homers a year in his prime with a strong average when he was coming up, so the 2018 power production seemed a little more in line with what I expected to see in his first couple of years.

Then came the breakout of 2019. Bell was one of the top hitters in the league in the first half that season, belting 27 homers with a .302/.376/.648 line in the first half. He cooled off quite a bit in the second half of 2019, though (.233/.351/.429 with 10 HR) before having a pretty dreadful 2020 campaign. In 2020, the Average (.226) and Isolated Power (.138) were way down. More importantly, the strikeouts (26.5%) were way up. Those problems continued to plague Bell early this season with the Nationals. Let's have a look at a month by month breakdown.

Mar/Apr 60 .113 .200 .264 2 12 5 8.3% 28.3% 25
May 93 .264 .312 .483 5 15 17 6.5% 23.7% 110
Jun 80 .282 .363 .521 4 7 15 11.3% 21.3% 132
Jul 93 .287 .333 .552 6 14 16 6.5% 16.1% 130

Bell's strikeout rate was obviously one of his biggest issues in the 2020 season. The first month of this year saw a frightening continuation of that issue. While it was still very high compared to his career norms in May, that strikeout rate has dropped every month so far this season. Unsurprisingly, we'll also notice that the batting average and slugging percentage have also gone up quite a bit each month. I've also decided to highlight the wRC+ for June and July. Are we dealing with a small sample here? Sure, but it's worth noting that Bell's wRC+ in his breakout 2019 season was 135. Those June and July numbers aren't far off.

Can he continue this trend? To be fair, it's unlikely that Bell's strikeout rate is going to improve for the fourth straight month. However, it's not unreasonable to think that he can hover in a range that falls between June (21.3%) and July (16.1%). Midway through his sixth season in MLB, Bell checks in with a career 19.4% strikeout rate, which is better than average for a guy with his kind of power. If Bell can continue to keep that strikeout rate in the 20% range, there's no reason to think that he can't be a consistent .275+ hitter with good power production... a solid middle of the order bat on most teams.

There is one area of concern, though, and many of you who will remember me from when I wrote at Federal Baseball more regularly will know exactly what I'm going to say. What on earth has happened to Bell's walk rate? Bell walked more than 12% of the time in three of his first four seasons, never finishing with a BB% of lower than 10.6% in that span. During last season's shortened campaign, Bell saw his walk rate drop to a career low 9.9%. It's on the decline for the third straight season, all the way down to 8.0%!

Some will say that walks are boring. Others will say that they'd rather see their team's power hitter swing for the fences, and that means that they're going to walk less often. I say the goal of hitting in a baseball game is to step up to the plate and not make an out. I'm not as concerned with this as I was earlier in the season, when Bell looked like he was on pace to have a third straight season where his strikeout rate climbed and his walk rate declined. It is still a bit troubling, though, and while we saw the walk rate spike back to normal levels in June, it sunk back down to 6.5% in July.

All in all, my deeper dive into Josh Bell's numbers tell me that he is a guy that the Nats might be wise to keep around for a few years. He's shown over his career that he's got better than average power. He's showing signs that the strikeout problems of last season were probably just a blip on the radar screen. He's solid defensively and seems well liked both in the clubhouse and the community. He also seems like a player that is unlikely to break the bank financially, which would keep ownership happy and probably wouldn't prevent the Nats from being able to spend elsewhere when they need to.

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