Bell’s Bounce; Pirates slugger embracing simple approach

The conversations were polite but also respectfully blunt. Little small talk. No sugarcoating or coddling. Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell would have seen right through anyway.

So when newly hired hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz sat Bell down early in spring training and plotted a course to unlock Bell’s potential following an uneven and borderline disappointing 2018, they didn’t minimize his importance to a franchise whose narrow path to contention relies heavily on the 26-year-old’s immense shoulders.

Instead, they leaned into it.

“I think he was still unsure of what type of hitter he was,” Cruz said. “(We) were telling him how we viewed him as an organization, the power hitter he can be.”

The attributes were there. The hand-eye coordination. The strength. The smarts. The work ethic. Each powered by perfectionism not always suited for a game where moments of excellence are fleeting and purity is nonexistent.

Eckstein and Cruz had heard the reports. They’d read the stories. They’d watched the video. They saw a player who too often would abandon one approach in search of another when things went sideways, as they did often in 2018, when Bell’s home run total plummeted from 26 to 12.

So they asked Bell to take a leap of faith. No more hitting 200 balls off the tee in the cage before heading outside for batting practice. No more vacillating between a 33-inch bat and a 35-incher. No more poring over video in search of yesterday’s fix. No more blowing things up and starting over after going 0 for 4.

“Every day he comes in and does that simple routine and goes out there and trusts it,” Cruz said. “We’ve helped him a little, but really he’s taken ownership of it and it’s started to show up in the game.”

Not to mention the outer reaches of ballparks and — on occasion — the Allegheny River.

His performance during a record-setting May — in which he became just the third player in history to have a dozen homers and a dozen doubles in the same month, joining Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson — almost singlehandedly kept the injury-ravaged Pirates hovering around .500 in the highly competitive NL Central.

Bell leads the major leagues in doubles (21) and RBIs (53). His 18 home runs are tied for fourth and his .332 batting average ranks sixth. He’s a near lock for his first All-Star Game appearance and there’s support to get him into the Home Run Derby after his player of the month performance.

“With JB, you hear the word ‘promise’ a lot or ‘prospect’ or ‘potential,'” teammate Jameson Taillon said. “It’s cool to see him just kind of fulfill it.”

Something the Pirates desperately need as they search for an identity in the post-Andrew McCutchen era.

The five-time All-Star centerfielder’s trade to San Francisco in January, 2018 created a void both on and off the field. The charismatic McCutchen embraced being the fulcrum for the franchise as it emerged from two decades of mediocrity to reach the postseason from 2013 to 2015. His departure left the Pirates in need of a new cornerstone to build around, not only in the clubhouse but in the city.

It’s a job that fell to Bell whether he asked for it or not. He declined to use the added pressure as an excuse for his underwhelming 2018, when his power numbers dipped dramatically a season removed from finishing third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

The ever measured Bell said all the right things and did all the right things even as months passed and he hopscotched from one stance to another. He dived into community outreach — working with former Pirate Willie Stargell’s Foundation among other non-profit outlets — and was a fixture at his locker to explain why things weren’t working.

Yet he knew it wasn’t good enough. Rather than spend the offseason back home in Dallas, he headed to Huntington Beach, California, to work out with private hitting coach Joe DeMarco, who served as a personal hitting instructor.

Bell arrived at spring training in Bradenton, Florida, eager for a fresh start. Eckstein and Cruz — both new to the Pirates — provided him with one.

They worried hitting hundreds of balls off the tee each day would ingrain bad habits, so they asked him to stop. They worried switching back and forth between bat lengths would disrupt his timing, so they suggested he take a 35-inch bat — one of the few players in the majors able to handle a piece of lumber that size — and stick with it.

They also streamlined their message. The season is a roller coaster, they told him. When things get bumpy, grab the bar and hold on, don’t throw your hands up in panic.

“It’s just understanding that there’s some frustration to the game, there’s some frustration to the at bats,” Cruz said. “The key is not letting it carry from one at bat to another and then more importantly not letting it carry over to the next game.”

While Bell isn’t completely over switching things up — he’ll still swap out a pair of cleats, for example, during a mini-slump — when he’s in the box he’s made a concerted effort to do the same thing every time. Less thinking. More reacting.

“Over the years he’s kind of tinkered his swing, tinkered his routine and now he’s realizing he’s having success with this, ‘Even if I’m having a bad game, I just need to stay right where I’m at,'” Taillon said.

Bell insisted he’s content to just ride the wave and see where it takes him. His renaissance is a mixture of maturity, metrics and menace. His average exit velocity (94.6 mph), percentage of hits on the barrel (16.1) — thanks in part to using a longer bat exclusively — and hard-hit percentage (54.7) are all well above his career averages.

“He’s just hammering the mistakes better this year,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Generally, the biggest difference you see in most guys, they just hit the mistakes. When they’re going really well you don’t get away with any mistakes and that’s what Josh has done.”

It’s why Pittsburgh’s dugout will come to a complete stop when Bell steps to the plate, eager to see what comes next.

Maybe it’ll be simply hitting the ball to the right side of the infield to get a runner home from third — as he did in a loss to the Brewers on Sunday — or maybe he’ll unleash all 6-feet-4, 240-pounds of him into a swing and send a towering shot over the right-field stands at PNC Park that lands in the nearby Allegheny on the fly. Something he’s already done twice this spring.

“He pushes himself,” teammate Chris Archer said. “If he gets out, he’s mad. He’s hitting .340 and he’s angry that he’s got out, which continues to keep him motivated. He’s not content. We’ve got four months left in the season and I expect to see big things from him going forward.”

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