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Deep Dive: Will The Real Josh Bell Please Stand Up?

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Josh Bell was absolutely amazing to start the 2019 season. It appeared as though he was finally putting together the type of season we all felt he was long overdue for.

There were changes in his profile and approach that appeared to fuel the success. The underlying numbers at the time backed the success for the most part as well. It was widely believed the breakout was real and this was who he was likely going to be most of the year.

Unfortunately, those happy days with sunshine and blue skies have turned into a bit of a thunderstorm. The issue is the sound of thunder isn’t from his bat. Okay, that was a bad joke. They all can’t be winners, so let’s just move on.

I am going to look into the good, the bad and the ugly of Josh Bell’s season. The goal here is to see if I can identify what exactly is going on and offer what to expect down the home stretch of the fantasy season. Let’s do this thing!

Josh Bell and His Early-Season Breakout

We are now 4 months into the season. Two-thirds of the season has gone by and you can essentially split the season as of now in half for Josh Bell.

Josh Bell Batted Ball

I wasn’t kidding. Opening day until the end of May and then June through July are complete opposites of one another. We will discuss the early season breakout first. I will keep this part quick because we are all well aware he was great to start the year.

From opening day through the end of May, Bell truly appeared to be having a full-on breakout. During that span hit 18 home runs, had a triple slash of .343/.405/.704, a wOBA of .444 and a wRC+ of 180! It just doesn’t get much better than that to start a season. There were tangible changes that supported the idea that the breakout was real.

He was more aggressive at the plate which was evident in the decrease in the walk rate and an increase in the K-rate. The walk rate was sitting at 9.5% and the K-rate was at 19.8%. For Josh Bell, those were career-worst marks and yet they were both still better than league average.

Bell was swinging more, making more contact and managed to keep an above average O-Swing (or chase rate) of 29.3% Everything truly was coming together.

So what happened? I know regression was due but it came in a big way and it’s going on 2 months now of pretty bad output. Let’s see what has changed, shall we?

The Turn For The Worse

This is where I will focus the time and effort. We will go through the changes in batted ball data, how pitchers may have changed their approach towards attacking him, plate approach and anything else I can find that may be cause for this turn for the worse. Strap in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Advanced Stats

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Well, this isn’t April or May anymore! This is the start of June until the end of July. So we will focus on the data provided during this 2 month period.

The first thing that pops out at you is that triple slash of .213/.318/.448 accompanied by a wRC+ that was almost cut in half, sitting at 95 compared to the wRC+ of 180 from the first 2 months.

It’s not all doom and gloom. An encouraging sign is the walk rate improvement up to 12.9%. This suggests maybe he realizes pitchers are attacking him differently and he’s adjusting. The K-rate as well hasn’t had too much change. A slight uptick to 20.7% during this span. This K-rate is still better than the league average.

Plate Discipline

Josh Bell Plate Discipline

This is odd and part of his issue. Even with the walk rate up 3.4% during this span when compared to the first 2 months, Josh Bell’s chase rate has increased. It is 31.9% which is an increase of 1.6%. This comes with a lower zone swing (or Z-swing) percentage and lower overall swing percentage.

Essentially, he’s swinging less thus drawing more walks. However, when he is swinging it’s at more pitches outside the zone which likely explains the K-rate sustaining even with the walk rate spike.

Pitchers have started adapting a bit and have begun throwing fewer pitches in the zone. The zone rate is down nearly 2% from 38.4% to 36.7%. An encouraging sign is even though he decreased his Z-swing rate to 77.3%, his z-contact rate is up to 83.3%. So he’s being more selective in the zone while making more contact. Typically, that would lead to better results.

Josh Bell Batted Ball Data

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Well, this may explain it. Josh Bell has been making worse quality of contact. His hard hit rate is down 4.4% and while soft contact is up 5.4% during this downward trend. Also concerning is the LD rate decrease of 4.2% to 16.2% and there’s a notable increase in GB% of 3.6% to 46.5%.

The quality of contact decrease, as well as the increase in GB rate, would explain a lot of the BA woes he has had of late. Not to mention it lends itself to that .226 BABIP he is sporting since the start of June.

This isn’t by accident. Pitchers have done a nice job of adjusting to Josh Bell. Take a look at the way they’re attacking him throughout the season.

Pitch Mix Changes

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Pitchers sure did begin to attack him a bit differently. In June, you can see a clear decrease in fastball use and an increase in off-speed pitches.

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It makes sense. As you can see, although the numbers across the board were fantastic, he had the least success against off-speed offerings even in the early months.

In April and May you can see when it came to off-speed pitches, he had his highest whiff rates of any type of pitches as well as lowest BA, xBA, SLG and xSLG of any pitches. This was a trend pitchers likely noticed and began to adapt to. I believe the change in pitch mix starting in June was a part of the steep fall-off in production.

In July, he appeared to be getting a little unlucky with off-speed offerings as well as fastballs. He had an xBA 45 points higher than his actual BA on fastballs. No to mention Bell had as an xwOBA 45 points higher than his actual wOBA on fastballs. You’ll notice a similar trend on his off-speed pitches just on a smaller scale.

It appears he has somewhat corrected the issues with off-speed offerings but now has struggled mightily with breaking pitches. Pitchers have again changed their approach and as they’ve started throwing more breaking pitches in July. You can see the BA against breaking balls is a lowly .136 with a xBA of .160  his SLG and xSLG isn’t all that pretty either.

It’s on Josh Bell to continue to adapt as pitchers do. He has begun to a bit as we see in the breakdown on pitches. Josh Bell himself has mentioned starting to take a more patient approach and let the pitches come to him.

StatCast Data and Rest of Season Outlook

Josh Bell Statcast Data

Now, you know I couldn’t leave without bringing up the statcast data. All this red! It just doesn’t get much prettier than that. Even after the terrible two months, he’s still measuring at the top of the charts in most categories.

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Earlier in the season, these numbers did not match up as closely. They suggested regression at that time. Now that he has regressed overall to what we expected, the numbers all line up pretty well as a whole

Even with the recent troubles, Josh Bell has managed has career highs across the board. Everything from the barrel rate of 13.1% to the hard hit rate up 9.1% from last season currently sitting at 48.1%. This power isn’t something you just fall into and the season-long production doesn’t appear to be any sort of fluke.

At the end of the day, I expect Josh Bell to be a player who produces somewhere between the great start and the lowly floor he’s recently crashed into. Yes, that’s the boring answer but it’s the answer I believe to be true. I see a .270 to .280 hitter with very real home run power. I expect a solid run down the stretch and for him to put this slide behind him.

I don’t expect a repeat of the first two months, unfortunately, but I do expect solid numbers and a rebound to a player you can set in your lineup and just let him remain there without a second thought.

Mike Kurland is a new contributor for FantraxHQ covering fantasy baseball. He began with Fantrax in June of 2019. He is also the creator and host of The  Bases Loaded Podcast. Mike is new as a fantasy baseball analyst but he has really embraced it with open arms. Feel free to reach out to Mike on Twitter @Mike_Kurland with any of your fantasy baseball questions, he is always happy to answer them.

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