Sunday Notes: Josh Bell is Powering Up his A-Swing

Half a dozen years after Pittsburgh drafted him out of a Dallas, Texas high school, Josh Bell’s power game has finally emerged. After going deep just 47 times in his first five professional seasons, the switch-hitting first baseman has 20 home runs for the Pirates in 448 plate appearances. Augmenting those numbers are 21 doubles, four triples, and a .257/.333/.486 slash line.

When I talked to the then-21-year-old old Bell in August 2013, he told me that his “power is going to come, just from maturity; I can’t really change my swing.” Two years later, at the Double-A All-Star game, he told me he had made an adjustment to where he felt he could “power through the ball while still making consistent contact.”

On Wednesday, I asked him what’s changed since our 2015 conversation.

“In Double-A, I was (batting) average first with a low number of strikeouts,” answered Bell. “Last year. I started focusing on driving the ball more — more doubles and homers. That’s carried over into this year. I’ve kind of morphed from what I was then to what I am now.”

The launch-angle approach espoused by an increasing number of hitters wasn’t the impetus.

“It wasn’t necessarily about hitting the ball in the air,” said Bell. “It was about just doing damage with mistakes. For me, it’s the difference between trying to stay inside a fastball right down the middle, or trying to get the head out on it and drive it (pull side). I guess it’s about taking my A-swing more often.

“I’m not really a fly-ball guy — most of my home runs are line drives — and while I’m hitting .250, I’m not an all-power guy. I guess I’m on the edge. I like to think of myself as a guy who hits for average, as well. We all want to be complete hitters, and from there, the game plays out the way that it does.”

On Thursday, Bell turned on a pitch from Detroit’s Drew VerHagen and drove it deep into Comerica Park’s right field seats. The ball traveled 429 feet.

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Manny Ramirez and Mike Trout are two of the most prolific right-handed hitters of our lifetimes, and the early stages of their careers yielded similar slash lines. Ramirez hit .302/.390/.558 through his age 26 season, while Trout, who turned 26 earlier this month, has hit .309/.411/.568. In each case, superstar status was attained well before the birthday cake required 30 candles.

Dave Hansen has the pleasure of being Trout’s hitting coach (how could it not be a pleasure?) with the Los Angeles Angels. When I chatted with him earlier this summer, I brought up the comp, curious as to how he’d equate their approaches and abilities to square up baseballs.

“(Trout) loves to do it; that’s No. 1,” Hansen told me. “The feeling of the ball off the bat… that’s what Manny was like. They just love to hit. They have that natural ability to hit the ball in the air. Bat angle, similar. Impact to the ball, similar. Workers… as much as he maybe let on that he just played the game, Manny was a smart hitter. He studied hitting.”

As scary as this may sound to pitchers, Hansen feels Trout is still growing and evolving as a hitter. Much like Manny, he doesn’t rest on his laurels — he strives to get even better.

I asked Hansen what types of questions Trout asks when they work together in the batting cage.

“It’s not so much about his swing,” answered Hansen. “It’s more, ‘Am I on time? Am I not? Where are my hands? It’s checklist stuff, but never really… you don’t mess with that too much. With guys like him and Manny, it’s mostly just a matter of timing. From there, you just let the kid play.”

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In the Notes column that ran here five weeks ago, Manny Margot said of Manny Ramirez, “I still admire him, but we have different games. He was a big home run hitter, and that’s not so much my game.”

Fair enough, but the 22-year-old San Diego Padres outfielder shouldn’t sell himself short. While he doesn’t profile as a bopper, he does have a dozen homers on the season. Two of them came on Friday, and he has seven over his last 14 games. Over the last four weeks, the rookie is batting .302 with a .605 slugging percentage.

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This past February, we ran an article about the subtle differences between the balls used in MLB and the ones used in the minor leagues. More recently, former big-leaguer Frank Herrmann weighed in how Japanese baseballs differ from the ones used here in the United States. And while we haven’t written about the balls used in Latin American countries, they aren’t exactly the same either.

What does this mean for the international scouting community, particularly in terms of the action pitchers get on their breaking balls? I asked Eddie Romero, Jr., and Jared Banner how the Red Sox address the situation.

Romero, who serves as a senior vice president and assistant general manager, coordinates Latin America. He told me the Red Sox take their own baseballs to workouts to “make sure we have a similar look across the board.” Minor league balls are used, and care is taken to replace them once they’ve begun to show wear and tear.

Banner — Boston’s vice president/player personnel — oversees Asia, where scouts face a bigger challenge. Whereas teams can use minor league balls in their Latin academies and for workouts, that’s not an option overseas. A lack of direct contact with the players is also an obstacle.

“When someone is signed with a foreign club, we’re not allowed to speak to him,” explained Banner. “That would have to wait until after he becomes a free agent, or gets posted.”

Banner told me that most Japanese ballparks have TrackMan installed, and that there are “specific agreements between NPB and MLB in terms of data sharing,” so the Red Sox “have some access to that data.”

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Red Sox prospect Bobby Poyner is equal parts hard to explain and hard to square up. The numbers he’s putting up are eye-popping. In 21 relief appearances since being promoted to Double-A Portland, Poyner has allowed just 11 hits, and one earned run, over 31 innings of work. The 24-year-old left-hander — a 14th round pick in 2015 out of the University of Florida —has walked five and fanned 41.

Gus Quattlebaum — Boston’s vice president of professional scouting — recently offered the following assessment of Poyner.

“He’s a tough one for scouts,” admitted Quattlebaum. “You see this undersized, strong, stocky left-handed pitcher, and he won’t wow you with stuff, but they can’t hit him. The swings are all late. We know the makeup — he’s a fearless strike thrower who works ahead in the count — and he’s constantly changing speeds, which allows the fastball to play up. The more you watch him, the more you like him. He’s been a big success story for us this year in player development.”

On the season, Poyner has a 1.21 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP in 52 innings between high-A and Double-A.

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Gavin Lux is getting a taste of adversity in his first full professional season. The 19-year-old shortstop is slashing just .223/.325/.349 for the Dodgers’ low-A affiliate, the Great Lakes Loons. But he’s also getting smarter. The 2016 first-round pick is making advances as a hitter thanks to what is becoming a more-disciplined approach.

“Earlier this year, if I got into a 2-0 count, I was swinging at anything in the zone,” Lux told me on Friday. “Now, when I’m ahead in the count I’m looking for a spot in my quadrant. I’m eliminating certain zones until I get to two strikes, at which point everything is game and you just have to fight.”

Over his last 16 games, Lux is 22 for 61 and has drawn eight free passes. As for the struggles that preceded the hot streak, the native of Kenosha, Wisconsin been taking them in stride.

“This is the first year I’ve struggled — really ever — but I’ve never felt overmatched,” claimed Lux. “I’s more that everything has been a learning experience. I have to take it for what it is.”

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When Matt Manning was featured here in mid-July, he was pitching for short-season Connecticut. Detroit’s 2016 first-round pick was subsequently promoted to low-A West Michigan, and he made his first start for the Whitecaps earlier this week. It didn’t go well. With Tigers GM Al Avila watching, Manning struggled with his command and was pulled after retiring just five of the 11 batters he faced.

If the promising 19-year-old was guilty of overthrowing while attempting to impress the organization’s head honcho, he is reticent to admit it. When I broached the subject with him yesterday, he said there was a rumor floating around that Avila was in the house, but it didn’t affect his performance. He was simply “excited to go out there and pitch.”

What was the reason for his subpar effort?

“I just didn’t make certain pitches,” said Manning. “I was behind in counts. It happens. I don’t think the game sped up on me, or anything like that. It was just a different level, a different place — there were a few moving parts — but it’s my job to dial that in and throw strikes. It just didn’t happen that day.”

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In 2015, Mike Hessman broke a record, previously held by Buzz Arlett, by hitting his 433rd minor league home run. It was the last of his career, and number 454 overall. He also hit 14 in MLB, six in Japan, and one in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Hessman is now the hitting coach for the West Michigan Whitecaps. I asked him how familiar the players are with his 20-year professional career.

“I don’t know if they know the whole extent — how long I played — but they do know about the home run record,” Hessman told me. “We don’t bring it up too much, but there is some trash talking in baseball, and we like to keep the clubhouse loose, so if I have to pull it out and let them know how many I hit, I’ll put it out.”

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AUGUST TIDBITS

Brad Eldred hit his 400th professional home run earlier this week, and it came as a member of the Hiroshima Carp. Eldred has hit 125 in Japan, 15 in MLB, and 251 in the minors, with the smattering of others coming in the Arizona Fall League and in winter ball.

Atlanta’s Nick Markakis has hit two-or-more doubles in 47 games since breaking into the big leagues in 2006 — the most in MLB over that span.

Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon leads the National League in triples, with 13. Detroit’s Nicholas Castellanos leads the American League in triples, with nine.

Texas Rangers infielder Joey Gallo has grounded into only one double play in 526 career plate appearances, and he is a perfect 10 for 10 in stolen base attempts.

As of Friday, Padres pitchers Luis Perdomo and Clayton Richard were tied for the National League lead in most double plays induced, with 22 each. Toronto’s Marcus Stroman led the American League with 25.

The Houston Astros own the best road record in the MLB at 38-18 (.679), and are averaging an MLB-best 6.66 runs per game on the road.

The Oakland A’s have gone 155 games since their last complete game, which came on Aug. 19, 2016. The streak is a club record.

Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias has five saves of at least two innings, the most by a pitcher since Kansas City’s Joakim Soria had five in 2009. The last pitchers with six saves of at least two innings were Billy Koch and Derek Lowe, in 2000.

———

Brian Bannister was one of the featured speakers at last weekend’s Saber Seminar, and as we’ve come to expect, the Red Sox VP of pitching development had a lot to offer. A perspective he shared on trends was especially interesting.

“You can’t tell your pitchers the same thing year to year anymore, because the hitters are changing so fast,” opined Bannister. “You have guys talking about hitting the ball in the air, and everybody is talking about the ball flying further — there is the spike in home runs. There are these very macro things happening, and at the same time, most guys are trying to teach the same thing they’ve aways taught. With analytics, you’ve trying to exploit those things. If 90% of teams are teaching pitching a certain way, analytically, how do we exploit that and get a competitive advantage?

“You see pitching coaches who are not aware of the macro trends, and the way the game is evolving year to year, falling behind because the teams that are smarter are exploiting them — and they might not even be aware of it.”

———

Don Cooper is one of the most-experienced pitching coaches in the game, and he’s also one of most-highly-respected. The 60-year-old former big-league hurler has been in his current role since 2002, and he’s been coaching in the White Sox system since 1988.

Along with being a pitching guru, Cooper is opinionated and handy with a quip.

“There have been plenty of guys over the years with great arms,” Cooper told me recently. “In the United States, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico — all of these places — there are dead bodies all over the side of the road, and they’re guys who had great arms and good stuff. They never figured it out. Good stuff right over the plate isn’t good for anybody, if you can locate it, move it around, and throw a couple different pitches for strikes… well, pack up the bats and balls. It’s going to be a hard night for the hitters.”

Cooper shared a shorter, but every bit as glib, take on Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton:

“He’s mostly just the sinker, but it’s 97 (MPH),” said Cooper. “By the time you figure him out, he’s in the clubhouse having a beer.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post wrote about Dusty Baker mourning the death of his longtime friend Don Baylor.

Miguel Cabrera’s home-road splits are extreme, as George Sipple pointed out at The Detroit Free Press.

The Tigers are transitioning Nicholas Castellanos to the outfield, and Chris McCoskey has the details at The Detroit News.

A FanRag, John Perrotto wrote about how Cleveland rookie Bradley Zimmer is flashing Gold Glove potential in center field.

Writing for The Undefeated, Rhiannon Walker told of how the Atlanta Braves once signed Satchel Paige, so that he could get an MLB pension.

Over at Detroit Athletic Company, Dan D’Adonna wrote about how Tigers pitching great John Hiller’s first MLB win came on the first huge night of the 1967 Detroit riots.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

On August 17, 1957 Richie Ashburn of the Philadelphia Phillies hit a foul ball that broke the nose of a fan. Ashburn then fouled off the very next pitch, and it hit the same fan as she was being carried off on a stretcher.

Gus Triandos, a catcher/first baseman for five teams from 1953-1965, stole just one base in 1,206 big-league games. It was his only attempt — he was never caught stealing.

Jose Bautista has 36 career homers against the Yankees, the most by any active player. Evan Longoria has 35.

From 1921-1925, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Rogers Hornsby logged 3,110 plate appearances and slashed .402/.474/.690.

Babe Ruth died of throat cancer on August 16, 1948 at the age of 53. Ruth finished his career with a record of 94-46 and a 2.28 ERA. He was also a good hitter.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Josh Bell is Powering Up his A-Swing by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Maybe even more important for Josh Bell is the fact that he’s also been less disastrous in the field.