DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: No one matters more than Josh Bell

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Josh Bell welcomes Francisco Cervelli after a home run Monday in Houston. - AP

HOUSTON -- It’s time to put the foot down.

Of all the classic Clint Hurdle-isms, I'd have to say that's the most common. It’s his way of stating the Pirates or one of their individuals needs to take command of a slump, to strip away its influence, to stamp it out.

In Josh Bell’s case, the definition is as much literal as figurative.

"Where his front foot lands, it provides the ability to use the ground to create great force," Rick Eckstein, the new hitting coach, was telling me Tuesday before the Pirates’ 5-1 victory over the Astros at Minute Maid Park in the final spring exhibition. "So when you stick that landing, it allows you to grip the ground. If that landing is constantly changing, then that repeatability of locking into your launch position is affected. A lot."

Did that make sense? Or was it too inside baseball?

If it's the latter, let me offer it a different way after two days of multiple discussions on this: Bell's front foot, meaning the one nearest the pitcher, has tended to land all over the batter's box. He'd adjust from pitcher to pitcher, even pitch by pitch. As a direct result, he'd mess with the aforementioned "launch position," which is the highest, farthest-back point of having the bat triggered and ready to swing.

And as a direct result of that ... well, you saw:

So the focus after the above power plunge, among the greatest in Major League Baseball last summer, turned to a multi-fold principle.

"Consistency," as Bell spoke to me from his stall. "The land. The launch."

The land. The launch. ... And then liftoff?

Man, these Pirates had better hope so.

Before digging deeper into the mechanics, allow me, please, to offer my own multi-fold principle regarding the season that's starting Thursday in Cincinnati: These pitchers will pitch, some of these hitters will hit, all the intangibles will be in order, and not any of that will matter a whit if the cleanup hitter popguns another dozen home runs.

Which isn't to lay it all on Bell. That sort of thing is silly with any team sport. But it is to insist that Bell's the pivotal factor, based on this lineup's need for home runs -- 157 last season, sixth-fewest in the majors -- and based on this organization having absolutely no one else capable of busting out for big power, including in the system.

Jung Ho Kang's return should help in that regard, of course, but it's fair to wonder how much he'll add to the 20 total home runs the Pirates got from third basemen in 2018, between Colin Moran's 11 and David Freese's nine. And however much that plus might be, there's a glaring minus to open the season in right field with Gregory Polanco out a month or more.

But hey, don't take my word for it. Listen to Bell when I asked if he appreciates how much of 2019 appears to be on his broad shoulders.

"Sure," he replied without hesitation. "Yeah. I look back at last year, and I think if you plug in different numbers for me, we have a different season."

How different?

"We're in the playoffs. I know that. And I know what we need now."

The playoff notion is a leap and a half, of course. Those Pirates won 82 games, and the lowest wild card qualifier, the Rockies, won 91. Bell could have uncovered his inner Mike Trout and not covered that much ground for the team.

Still, if he thinks that, it's fine. Because the coldest of truths in this equation is that Bell's been far too stubborn about his inconsistent elements for far too long, and it's got to change. If that takes an extra burden, so be it. If that takes realizing he's 26 and it might be now or never, so be it. If that takes the awareness that a sweeping change was made with the team's hitting instruction -- Eckstein and Jacob Cruz replacing Jeff Branson and Jeff Livesey in the offseason -- so be it.

Bell's too bright for his own good at times, in my experience. He's the type to be tempted to write up a thesis on why he popped out in a 10-run loss. And he's exasperated Hurdle to the rare point where the manager will openly criticize a player, and that goes back for several months, including this column I wrote last August in Milwaukee, as related to Bell's stance.

"It's a question. It's a real question," Hurdle came back when I asked down here the question he probably fielded a billion times over in Bradenton. "But I believe he has gotten better."

Not statistically, it should be noted. After an 0-for-2 here Tuesday, Bell wrapped up a .196 spring in which he went 11 for 56 with two home runs, two doubles, 17 strikeouts and two walks. So Hurdle clearly was speaking solely of the stance.

"And then," he continued, "our next opportunity to see that will be once the season starts. I told Josh early he's going to hit cleanup. I told him, 'Get in there and make the most of it. Be steadfast in that approach. Hold to that approach. You'll stay in the cleanup spot.' We're not looking for a bunch of lane-changing. Josh has been through enough of that in his career. But I think the month of September spoke to him about the benefits of not trying to adjust four or five times in a game to what they may or may not be throwing him. I feel he's in a very professional place in the box right now. I'm looking forward to seeing how he handles it in the season."

Last September, as Hurdle referenced, Bell hit four home runs to go with a .390 OBP. It was his best month of the season.

Despite the spring statistics, Bell sounds convinced he's only built off last September.

"I feel really great over this past week. It's really locked me in," he said. "I feel like all the good work I've put in this offseason has channeled me into the good place I'm in right now. I feel like the last 10-15 ABs, I've put swings on the ball that I want going into the season. I couldn't ask for much more than that."

I asked him, as I did with his manager and hitting coach, to describe it.

"It's body positioning. Being able to get balls in the air. It's just where I land. If I'm in a simple spot, if I can pull the trigger without having to change my direction with anything else on my body, then I'm on time, I'm in a good place. And if I'm hitting balls in the air ... you know. That's what the team needs."

It really is.

"I'm looking forward to it. Every day. Every at-bat. Bring it on."

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