The best thing about next week's Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game might be Josh Bell getting some recognition on the national stage. It isn't easy these days to get attention playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team stuck in .500-ish mediocrity ever since a 98-win season in 2015 ended in a wild-card loss to the Cubs, but Bell's 2019 numbers should not go unnoticed, and I suspect he will win over many new fans with some mammoth blasts in the competition.

In this year of the souped-up rabbit ball, it's easy to be suspicious of some of the big power numbers and attribute individual improvement to the baseball. After all, just go back to 1930 or 1950 or 1987 -- other famous juiced-ball seasons -- and you can see some of the best fluke seasons in major league history. Bell's improvement, however, appears legit. He hits the ball hard, he hits the ball far, and he looks like a player who finally understands his swing and his strength.

In the Pirates' ridiculous 18-5 win over the Cubs on Monday, Bell hit his 23rd, 24th and 25th home runs as part of a 4-for-6 night with seven RBIs. None of those home runs came off Cubs infielder Daniel Descalso, who was forced into mop-up duty late in the game. Bell's three home runs:

First inning off Adbert Alzolay, 109.2 mph exit velocity, 402 feet, off an 0-1 95 mph fastball

Second inning off Alzolay, 94.6 mph, 367 feet, off a first-pitch curveball

Eighth inning off Craig Kimbrel, 109.3 mph, 404 feet, off a 2-1 96 mph fastball

Bell also singled (105.8 mph) and flied out (98.9 mph). In fact, his only weak contact of the night came on a groundout against Descalso. In other words, it was a very good night. He wasn't the only Pirates hero on this night. Adam Frazier went 5-for-6 with four doubles, making the Pirates the first team since the 1950 Red Sox (and the second team since 1900) to have a player with three home runs and another with four doubles in a game. Colin Moran also went 5-for-5, making the Pirates the first team with two five-hit players since C.J. Cron and Carlos Perez did it for the Angels in 2016.

The Pirates finished the game with 12 extra-base hits, their second-most as a franchise in the live-ball era (since 1920), though not unique to 2019, as the Twins have had games with 13 and 12 extra-base hits this season.

As for Bell, he hit 26 home runs as a rookie in 2017 but dropped to 12 in 2018 in a disappointing .261/.357/.411 season. A big key has been a more aggressive approach. Consider some of his swing metrics:

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He has a swing rate of 49.6%, up from 43% in 2018.

His swing rate of 79% on pitches in the strike zone is up from 67.9%.

His swing rate of 40.2% on the first pitch is up from 27.8%. He has eight first-pitch home runs.

Bell had a good walk rate in 2017 and 2018, but his passivity at the plate seemed to work against him at times. Now he's jumping at pitchers earlier in the count, and it has paid off with a much higher average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. It has cut into his walk rate a bit, but obviously, the new approach has paid off.

A reason to buy into his first half: It isn't just the home runs. He also has 29 doubles and three triples, giving him an obscene 57 extra-base hits already.


Christopher Kamka
@ckamka
Josh Bell: 57 extra-base hits (3 HR tonight) is most by a National League player through the team's first 83 games of a season since Henry Aaron (57) in 1959

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10:18 AM - Jul 2, 2019
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In other words, this guy is smoking the ball all over the field. He's on pace for 112 extra-base hits, which would be the third-highest total of all-frickin'-time. The only players with more than 107 are two dudes named Ruth (119 in 1921) and Gehrig (117 in 1927).

Even as the Pirates appear headed to another .500-ish season, if this is who Bell is and will be, he's obviously going to be the focal point of a better Buccos ballclub in the future. You can hopefully include rookies Bryan Reynolds (.351/.415/.541) and Kevin Newman (.327/.372/.482) in that category as well, giving the Pirates their best foundation on offense since those playoff teams from 2013 to 2015. They'll need to find another power bat or two to help Bell, and the starting rotation has been a disappointment -- even beyond Jameson Taillon's injury -- so it isn't exactly clear if that future could be 2020 or a year or two beyond that.
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