The 2019 Pirates are Major League Baseball's ultimate high-wire act.
Despite being outscored by nearly 40 runs and seemingly having 40 players on the injured list, the Pirates have managed to stay in contention in the NL Central. If they're going to sustain this kind of success, they need far more from an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored (3.84 per game). They're getting practically zero production from a variety of lineup spots, including catcher, shortstop, third base and center field.
It's enough to make you wonder: Where would this team be without Josh Bell?
With each hellacious cut and each ball sent soaring into the stands (or the nearest body of water), Bell is proving he possesses elite power. A few weeks ago, we broke down the process improvements that have fueled the 26-year-old switch-hitter's breakout. The Cliff Notes version: A more power-friendly, upper-cut swing that has led to all-fields slugging. Today, let's look at where Bell's mammoth start ranks among his peers and the Pirates' all-time power-hitting greats.
How good has Bell been? Consider:
• Once you adjust for park factors and the league-wide run scoring environment, Bell's On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage is 94 percent better than the overall league average. His 194 OPS+ not only towers over his mark from 2018 (111), but ranks in the top five among all MLB hitters who have at least 150 plate appearances this season:
• While Bell has a long way to go before earning those oft-made comparisons to Willie Stargell, his torrid hitting thus far actually trumps even the best production turned in by Pops. Bell's 194 OPS+ would be the best in franchise history among first basemen with 150+ plate appearances in a season, topping Stargell's 1972 (164 OPS+) and 1978 (158 OPS+) campaigns.
• Among all Pirates hitters with 150+ trips to the plate in a season, Bell trails only Honus Wagner (205 OPS+ in 1908) and Barry Bonds (204 OPS+ in 1992). His 2019 pace puts him ahead of the likes of Arky Vaughan (190 OPS+ in 1935), Wagner (188 OPS+ in 1904), and Wagner again (187 OPS+ in 1907).
• Bell is on pace to hit 51 home runs this season. If he were to maintain that rate, he would have a chance to become the franchise's new all-time single-season home run leader. Ralph Kiner is the pace-setter, with 54 homers in 1949. The only other Pirates to clear 40 home runs in a season are Kiner (51 in 1947, 47 in 1950, 42 in 1951, 40 in 1948) and Stargell (48 in 1971, 44 in 1973). The last time the Pirates had a 30-home run season was 2013, when Pedro Alvarez belted 36.
When your name is in the same sentence as The Flying Dutchman, Kiner, the all-time home run king, and Pops, you're doing something remarkable. In a lineup teeming with near-automatic outs, Bell has been a one-man wrecking crew. One of the big questions now is, can he maintain that pace?
No one should expect Bell to keep slugging near .700, but he probably won't revert back into the frustrating singles hitter we saw in 2018. According to the ZiPS projection system on Fangraphs, Bell is forecast to bat .276, get on base at a .360 clip and slug .482 during the rest of the 2019 season. His park and league-adjusted line is projected to be 27 percent above average, which would still keep him in the upper tier of first basemen with guys such as Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. Alvarez is the last Pirates player to possess anything near Bell's level of power. And Bell doesn't have the same massive issues with making contact and platoon splits that ultimately torpedoed Alvarez's career. For the Pirates to stay in the race, they'll need their one-man Lumber Company to sustain some of his power-hitting gains -- and get a little help from other hitters.
To continue reading, log into your account: