STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Josh Bell will find out later Thursday if he has been voted in as the National League's starting first baseman in the 2019 All-Star Game.
Regardless of whether he actually takes home the starting nod, there is a better-than-good chance he will be tapped to play in the Midsummer Classic.
Honors aside, Bell's 2019 season is the breakout campaign that so many were hopeful for. Though many words have been spent describing just how good Bell has been, the occasion of the decision coming down today on his All-Star break plans warrants another look.
If we were to boil Bell's 2019 down to three key descriptors, what would we see?
MORE WITH LESS
Bell is seeing far fewer pitches in the zone than most. His 41.3 percent zone rate pales in comparison to the MLB-wide figure of 48.6 percent. If you want to talk meatballs, we can talk meatballs. Those being the juicy pitches that are center-cut. He sees only 5.6 percent of his pitches as meatballs, far less than the 8.1 percent the rest of MLB sees.
If we're talking specific pitches, Bell only sees 43.8 percent of his in-zone pitches as fastballs, down from 49.5 percent last season. Despite this, Bell tags all pitches equally. A 95.5 average exit velocity on fastballs coupled with a 96.5 mph average exit velo on breakers gives pitchers few options to get one by him. Should they try to sneak an offspeed pitch by, he can tag those too at 88 miles per hour on average.
Oh, and let's not forget that Bell is seeing more pitches when behind in the count -- 31.7 percent this season as opposed to 33.1 percent last year -- and thus defining the "more is less" mantra.
Bell's aggression has reached a new level in 2019, but the newfound swing-happy approach has been focused on.
Even though Bell's chase rate is up by 5.8 percent year-over-year, he is still within a sniff of the MLB average of 28.1 percent (Bell rings at 28.8). What's more important is that his in-zone swing rate has ballooned to 79.5 percent, far above the 65.9 percent baseball-wide rate, and 11.1 percent higher than his 2018 rate. Oh, and those meatballs mentioned above? Bell stabs at them at an 88.7 percent clip, nearly 13 full percentage points higher than the 2019 MLB-wide hitter rate.
A look at the types of pitches Bell is offering at that end up in the zone further help us understand just how well being aggressive has worked for him:
Here we see that Bell has actually been less aggressive on fastballs while hunting offspeed and breaking stuff. It has certainly agreed with him.
What I particularly like about this is that Bell is avoiding offering at two-seamers/sinkers. Among all fastball types, the pitch carries the second-lowest barrel rate in MLB with 7.7 percent. The first? A cutter with 6.9 percent.
A NEW SWING PATH
Before the season, Bell worked with a third-party hitting coach under the advice of his agent Scott Boras. Our own John Perrotto had all the details on that with a pre-season piece that is worth revisiting.
Rather than trying to buy into the launch angle craze, Bell has chosen to push his chips toward the idea of optimal swing path. That being, altering his swing plane to do the most damage on the most pitches.
First, let's take a look at a pitch that was middle-middle -- a meatball -- from late last season.
First, it must be noted how busy Bell was in the box before the pitch was even executed. This too has been cleaned up with the help of new Pirates hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz. By tidying his house, Bell is able to drive the ball more while still generating nearly the same swing path. Here's a freeze-frame of how 2018 looked:
Let's compare this to 2019. First, the footage:
And then, the screengrab:
Nearly identical, but with the big difference being in his stance, Bell is able to get consistently good swing path on the ball to maximize launch angle and put more drive behind the ball. This makes for some excellent swings, as you can see from this zone map of his in-zone swings:
Even from the raw numbers, one can see that Bell has been more aggressive nearly everywhere in the zone in which he can drive the leather-stitched ball. With a newfound ability to generate proper swing path on any pitch in the zone, can it be any wonder that he has been more aggressive?
Again, Bell might not get the starting first base nod for this year's All-Star Game. But he certainly has made one heck of a case, for these reasons and more.
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