Courtesy of StepOutside.org

Mound Visit: Bell’s revival is, uh, breaking news

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Josh Bell hits a two-run home run Sunday at PNC Park. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Josh Bell is certainly off to a great start in silencing doubters who pointed to an up-and-down 2018 serving as a barometer for his future as a middle of the lineup bat.

Anyone can tell you that he is hitting the ball much harder, with his outs making just as much noise as his hits. And those hits have helped compile a 140 wRC+ (weighted runs created-plus - an all in one metric designed to summarize a hitter's production. 100 is considered to be "average"), good for fifth among a National League first-base crop that includes an out-of-his-mind Cody Bellinger, Mets phenom Peter Alonso and Rhys Hoskins among them.

Clearly, Bell has bought into the idea of himself as the big bat in the Pirates' sometimes-anemic run creation plan. DK's missive from the final throes of spring training should have been our first clue. There, Bell seemed ready to minimize the over-tinkering that had become his hallmark over the past two seasons in favor of a simplified, aggressive, consistent approach.

I believe it's safe to say that ideal has worked out to date. However, there is more to consistent, damaging, soul-crushing hitting than simply picking an approach and sticking with it. There must also be real, tangible results that arise from cementing that foundation. In Bell's case, philosophy has transmuted into results most dramatically against the breaking ball.

Here, we'll use the term "breaking ball" to refer to sliders, curveballs and all of their variants.

[caption id="attachment_811105" align="aligncenter" width="640"] JASON ROLLISON/DKPS[/caption]

Not only is Bell chasing less breaking balls that fall out of the zone, he is being more aggressive when these wayward pitches wander too close to the zone. He's crushing these pitches -- both in terms of raw exit velocity and overall contact quality -- and making pitchers pay.

All of these facts and figures are sizable improvements over the 2018 version of Bell. The hidden benefit from this improvement against breaking balls, however, comes when Bell sees a ....fastball?

Yes, I did just spend 300-some odd words pointing explicitly to his stats against the breaking stuff as the impetus behind Bell's monster season in progress, but hear me out.

Bell is seeing just about the same amount of fastballs (all variants) by percentage this season (60.8 percent) as he did in 2018 (60.6 percent), but he carries an improved xwOBA/exit velocity against them -- .431/96.2 mph -- than last season's still-impressive .381/92.3 mph figures.

Small sample size is at play to a degree, but Bell's performance on all fastballs after seeing a breaking ball has given his fastball hunting that little extra oomph seen above. In 2019 to date, Bell has seen 22.6 percent of his fastballs come immediately after seeing a breaking ball. Within that 22.6 percent, he has only whiffed four percent of the time when offering at those fastballs. He's passed on 35 percent of those fastballs that then land for balls, continuing to show the good eye he has become known for, but when he swings, he does damage. On this subset of heaters, Bell has a slugging percentage of .621. Those figures were a bit similar in 2018: he saw 24.8 percent of his fastballs come after breakers, but his slugging percentage lagged to .403 against this group.

Here's why this is important: mixing and matching velocities, spin rates, movement and eye levels are the building blocks of effective pitching. By clobbering breaking balls, Bell is forcing pitchers to be a little more hesitant about offering them at obvious non-fastball counts. And yet when pitchers do get a breaking ball by Bell, they now must be at least a little nervous about following right up with a fastball to reset his eye level.

So what can pitchers do to consistently navigate a Josh Bell at-bat? As long as he is continuing to translate approach into results through better performance on breaking balls, the answer is likely to still be elusive.

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Remember that "Christmas morning" feeling you had when you were a kid? You would rush to the tree, and unwrap something shiny and new with unabashed glee?

I still get that feeling each time the folks behind Statcast -- namely, Baseball Savant overseer Daren Willman -- leaves a glistening toy for nerds such as myself to play with.

His latest is a tool to create pitcher texture heatmaps. Inspired by "old-timey" weather maps such as this one, this tool can help us see the density of pitches offered along with location. Let's use this tool to take a look at Pirates hurlers and provide some quick takeaways from what we see:

  • Jameson Taillon likes to play the fastball up. Way up.  Against right-handed hitters he brings it in a bit, and it is awfully effective to the tune of a .217 xwOBA in 2019 to date. Overall, Taillon ranks first in the majors among right-handed starters in four-seam exit velocity, with hitters only mustering 77.1 mph on average.
  • Taillon's curve is not quite extinct, but let's just say it finds itself on the endangered list. In 2017 the bender was seen from him 25.7 percent of the time. 2019 sees a 15.1 percent usage.
  • There does seem to be a clear plan of attack by batter handedness here, with the slider especially.

  • Despite major-league wide trends towards high fastball usage, Trevor Williams prefers to play things a little closer to the vest and attack the zone.
  • Williams really picked up his changeup usage last season, and continues to use it as a weapon.
  • Now is a good time to mention that not all pitch recognition systems are not equal. Brooks Baseball, for example, always reclassifies pitches after the fact. This might explain why some of Williams' offerings are being called cutters by Statcast. Regardless, Williams' breaking ball has yet to round into its previous shape. in 2018, hitters tagged his breaking pitches for just .306 xwOBA. That figure clocks at .346 thus far in 2019.

  • Things get much more interesting here with Joe Musgrove, who can seemingly throw any pitch at any time. Musgrove's success is fueled by spotting his fastball to set up his other pitches. On pitches that strictly follow a four-seamer, Musgrove has a 45.2 percent whiff rate.

  • Chris Archer's texture map looks a bit funky on first glance, until one realizes that a pitcher of his ilk should have a map closely resembling this. Fastballs up, sliders down, spot the other pitches. It's not rocket science.
  • The re-introduction of Archer's two seamer/sinker could result in some trouble, especially if he's going to catch as much of the heart of the zone with it as he has shown thus far.

  • Jordan Lyles has been fun to watch over his first three Pirates starts, and a look at his map shows textbook usage of the curveball. He, too, likes to spot the four-seamer up, and in to left handed hitters.
  • Lyles is carrying a 24.3 percent whiff-per-swing rate on those curveballs seen above that are outside of the zone.

  • Had to include one last one, if only to illustrate one important -- and obvious -- fact: Felipe Vazquez is not messing around this season.

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