Two years ago, Josh Bell did the unexpected. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs boldly drafted Bell in the second round, despite his proclamation — through a letter to all 30 teams — that he would be attending the University of Texas. The product of Dallas’ Jesuit College Preparatory School was committed to getting an education.
Much to the Pirates delight, he changed his mind. The powerfully built, switch-hitting outfielder was more than a promising student-athlete. He had as much raw talent as any player in the draft. Were it not for signability issues, he likely would have gone in the top half of the first round.
Last season, Bell learned how to deal with adversity. Just 15 games into his professional career, he tore the meniscus in his left knee and missed the rest of the season.
Bell, who turned 21 earlier this month, is currently getting his schooling in the South Atlantic League. In 498 plate appearances with the West Virginia Power, he is hitting .280/.353/.455, with 37 doubles and 12 home runs.
Bell on how he’d rate his season on a scale of one to 10: “I guess my No. 1 priority this year was staying healthy, and for the most part I’ve stayed on the field. I’d give that an eight or a nine. Performance-wise, I’m kind of a perfectionist, so maybe I’d give that a five. As far as development, I’d probably give myself a seven.”
On developing as a hitter: “Right now, I’m a gap-to-gap guy. I try to get into good hitters’ counts and drive the ball. I walk when I can and I drive the ball when I can.
“I was the same type of player when I signed, but maybe with more power. I guess that changes with the bats, and in a couple of years I’ll get that power back. But I’m still the same guy. My numbers don’t really mirror what I did in high school [.556 with 14 home runs as a senior], but I’m hitting in the high .200s and driving the ball for some doubles.”
On growing into his power: “I feel my power is going to come, just from maturity. I can’t really change my swing. If I’m trying to hit a home run, that might mess with my mechanics. Putting on a little bit of good weight in the offseason, and working on my bat speed, will be a healthier way of going toward being a power hitter, rather than [adopting] an all-or-nothing swing.”
On his conversations with hitting coach Orlando Merced: “We talk about attacking pitches in a certain zone. Come this part of the season, guys have faced you a couple of times and know your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t really expect any given pitch in any given situation. But if I can attack a zone, whether it’s a fastball or offspeed, I can do some damage.
“What I’m looking for kind of varies with how I’m feeling — how my swing is feeling — and how the pitcher is throwing. I might look in, or I might look out. I’ll make adjustments that way throughout the game.”
On developing better plate discipline and pitch recognition: “I think that’s mostly a rep-type thing. Some pitchers’ offspeed looks different than others, but I feel that, over the years, I’ve begun to pick up off-speed better. I’m not sure I’ve cut down on my K-rate, but I’ve cut down on my Ks on bounced off-speed.”
On mechanics and feel: “When my hitting coordinator came down, we looked at a few of my swings and picked out a few things I can work on. But at the same time, hitting is a feel thing. You go with what’s comfortable, and if your body isn’t feeling right, you do whatever you can to get it feeling right so you can perform that day.
“Swinging lefty, I’ve had a little bit of a problem with coming off my back side. I haven’t been strong back there. What we’ve worked on is powering through my back leg, driving that knee down, so I can get to that inside pitch. Righty, I’m trying to get to an athletic stance before I start my swing. Sometimes I’ll be a little too upright and not in my legs enough. We’ve been fine-tuning a little bit.”
“I haven’t had that many reps righty this year, so I’m more comfortable with my left-handed stance right now. I’ve always been a switch-hitter, and was the same from both side for the longest time, but I guess that’s changed a little bit. I just feel more comfortable upright as a righty, right now, and more comfortable in my legs, lefty. I don’t know if that’s going to change in the offseason, but right now that’s what feels right.”
On timing mechanism and load: “I’d say I have a small load from both sides. There’s no leg kick, or anything like that. I tried that early in the season and it didn’t work out for me. I was hitting the ball well, but didn’t feel as comfortable as I like to be up there. Now it’s more of a simple load from both sides, getting my foot down early and just picking up the pitch.
“I don’t really need to generate power. If I can trust my body to get stronger over the years, that will be enough for me.”
On leadership and learning from the sidelines: “Last year I watched the Gulf Coast League Pirates win their championship [while rehabbing]. I was there for all their meetings and saw what it takes for a team to come together and win it all. Right now, we’re fighting for first place, coming down the stretch. Whether it’s saying things or trying to pick guys up in the clubhouse, or making sure I’m not taking any reps off — those are the little things that help result in a ring at the end of the season.”
On his knee and his future: “There have been no [lingering effects]. As long as I take care of it… the doctor says my full recovery will come two years after surgery, but I’ve done pretty well for myself this year. I think next year is going to be awesome for me. I’ll be working hard in the offseason and taking care of my body the way I need to.
“I’m trying to stay focused on now. I’m playing on a team that has a chance to finish in first place, and the big-league team is obviously having a great season. It’s awesome to see that and cheer for them. But in my shoes, where I’m at right now, I’m exactly where I need to be. I’m learning. What I’m learning today will help me be stronger tomorrow.”