While many will celebrate getting Starling Marte back into their lineups or muse about the pending positive regression due for Gregory Polanco, the Pirates lineup is already deeper this year than many thought. Of course, the huge bounce back by Andrew McCutchen cannot be overlooked either with Pittsburgh winning four of their last five and seven of nine entering game play on Monday night. Over his last 31 games, McCutchen is hitting .414 (46-for-111). Polanco’s in the midst of an 11-game hit streak in which he’s doubled four times with two home runs. Yet, they’re not the focus on this profile of a player to target in the second half.
1. Blind profile
- Player A: Last 9 games: 41 plate appearances, seven runs, two home runs, 10 RBI, .316/.366/.605 with a .289 isolated power, .404 weighted on-base average, 7.3 walk percentage, 17.1 strikeout percentage, 45.2 hard contact percentage
- Player B: Last 9 games: 41 plate appearances, eight runs, three home runs, 10 RBI, .316/.366/.632 with a .316 isolated power, .407 weighted on-base average, 7.3 walk percentage, 22 strikeout percentage, 41.4 hard contact percentage
For reference, Player B moved into the second round of drafts this year after a power breakout last season. He just returned from injury, hits in a home ballpark made for his swing and shows no signs of slowing down during his age 27 season with the Braves. Freddie Freeman is in the midst of another strong season following up on his 34 home runs in 2016 with a higher isolated power and home run per fly ball percentage this year.
Player A seems to stay firmly below the radar despite hitting cleanup in the Pirates lineup. Josh Bell felt like a high on-base player who may not provide enough power to be fantasy relevant this year. However, he’s already hit 17 through his first 91 games and is pacing towards 30 in 160 games this year. Surprised?
2. Plate discipline
Comparisons between Freeman and Bell do not end here. In 434 minor league games, Freeman hit .303/.365/.474 with 51 home runs. Bell hit 44 home runs in 487 games in the minors with a .303/.373/.452 slash line. It’s not fair to expect Bell to match a career like Freeman, but over the last 14 days and during their minor league years, it’s striking how much they resemble each other.
Part of the allure of Bell lied within the high on-base percentage he displayed moving up the ranks of the minor leagues. At Triple-A in 2015, he walked 44 times against 50 strikeouts and followed it up with 57 walks to 74 strikeouts prior to his promotion last year. Upon joining Pittsburgh, Bell drew 21 free passes while striking out 19 times over his first 152 plate appearances. This year, he’s been a bit up and down, but showing signs of improvement of late with a .925 on-base plus slugging percentage in July.
3. Batted ball data suggests Bell’s trying to power up
Although his minor league profile did not hint at burgeoning power, Bell’s made some adjustments in the first half which carry over to his recent hot streak. He’s pulling the ball 43.9 percent of the time this year, compared to 22.3 percent during his debut in 2016. Like many who consciously trade discipline for power, Bell’s increased his swinging strike percentage (two percent), seen his contact rate decrease by 4.4 percent along with his swings and misses at pitches outside the strike zone up two percent, as well.
All of these events occurred without much change in Bell’s hard contact percentage in the majors, and his monthly splits suggest better days lie ahead.
4. Tracking his monthly statistics
Using some underlying statistics can provide information if a player’s on a hot streak or if some sort of consolidation of his skill set could be coming to fruition. Here’s some data to illustrate what’s been going on with Bell this year:
- Monthly BABIP: April, .280; May, .208; June, .254; July, .314
- Monthly wOBA: April, .352; May, .285; June, .357; July, .390
- Monthly wRC+: April, 118; May, 74; June, 122; July, 143
- Monthly OPS: April, .815; May, .680; June, .858; July, .925
Whether it’s small sample size or statistical correction, Josh Bell’s on the upswing in my favorite categories. BABIP’s very fluky, but included to show how it fluctuates with the others. Bell did hit five home runs in May but all of his other numbers suffered. But, he maintained the power in June with things returning back to normal. If he can carry over the power with the walks and strikeouts normalizing, Bell’s a potentially lethal hitter in the majors. It took Freeman until his age 26 season to reach 30-plus home runs. He’s a more refined hitter than Bell to this point, but take a look at their rolling 50 batted ball comparison courtesy of BaseballSavant.com:
Statistical anomalies will exist in baseball, but the blind profile above looks uncanny in resemblance. Freeman’s hits more fly balls and they’re not the same types of hitters, but the approach and power advances need to be noticed.
5. Buy Bell moving forward?
Both ZiPS and Steamer projections buy Bell’s average going up along with a higher on-base percentage in the second half. They do not buy into the power profile changes, but they also base it off of his past minor league performances, not the adjustments in approach by Bell during the first half.
If Bell’s going to reach 30 home runs this year, it changes his fantasy profile moving forward. It’s taken with a grain of salt knowing power is up across the board this year, but the underlying statistics defend the changes displayed by Bell. He may not be more than a 30-to-32 home run player, but if he does hit 30 with 80 RBI this year, he’s in store for a strong second half. Add in the return of Starling Marte with the lineup getting deeper, and Bell’s in a great spot to reach or beat his pace projections, especially in terms of average and runs batted in.
Although Josh Bell is not on the precipice of fantasy stardom, he’s better than many realize, making him a under the radar target for savvy fantasy owners to trade for or add in the second half. He’s not Freddie Freeman, but his numbers suggest he’s closer than many of us realize.
Statistical Credits: Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, MiLB.com, BaseballSavant.com, ESPN.go.com