Josh Bell – A Different Kind of First Baseman

A prototypical mashing first baseman Josh Bell is not. The 24-year-old made his debut in The Show this year and played in 45 games. Due to Starling Marte missing most of September, Bell split his playing time between first base (23 games played and 19 starts) and the outfield (16 games played and 14 starts). At sites with looser playing eligibility rules, Bell will have the added benefit of holding outfield eligibility next year. He graded out terribly defensively in the outfield, and his glove work was a negative at first base, too. Couple his bad defense with his negative contributions on the bases, and despite tallying a 113 wRC+, he earned a -0.4 WAR. Usually defense and base running — beyond stolen bases — don’t come up in fantasy pieces, but I bring both up as they’ll impact Bell’s playing time in 2017 if he’s not able to make improvements. He was no stranger to being lifted from starts early last year, and it was especially maddening in daily fantasy baseball. The good news for Bell is that returning John Jaso was a poor defender in his first season as a full-time first baseman after tallying just five innings at the position in the majors before 2016. Let’s take a look at Bell’s bat.

He’s a switch-hitter, but he’s considerably better against right-handed pitchers (125 wRC+ in 129 plate appearances) than lefties (49 wRC+ in 23 plate appearances). The sample size of plate appearances against righties and lefties in the majors is small, but Bell was also much better against righties as a left-handed batter (.861 OPS in 2016, .920 OPS in 2015 and .852 OPS in 2014) than against lefties as a right-handed batter (.758 OPS in 2016, .632 OPS in 2015 and .800 OPS in 2014) in the minors, too. The young hitter does a great job of making contact against either handedness of pitcher, and he works walks at a high clip against both as well, but he does little damage against southpaws. Again, the sample size is tiny, but perhaps his 17.7% Hard% versus lefties helps illustrate a problem with squaring them up and driving their pitches with authority. His .800 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2014 and his strong plate discipline and contact numbers against provide at least some hope he can make strides and not be a total dud against lefties, but it’s likely best to view him as such for the time being.

Against righties, Bell earned a wRC+ seven points higher than Jaso. Considering neither is helping the club with their glove, the advantage bodes well for the younger option earning the bulk of the playing time against righties at first base in 2017. As I noted right out of the chute, Bell isn’t a slugger. He hit only three homers in 152 plate appearances, and all were hit against righties. He doesn’t lift the ball much with only a 28.4% FB against righties, and he’s not a pull-happy hitter. On the contrary, he abuses the opposite field with a 42.1% Oppo% against right-handed pitchers. To put his Oppo% in perspective, DJ LeMahieu led qualified hitters with a 37.9% Oppo%, and Bell’s 42.9% Oppo% against all pitchers was the highest among hitters with a minimum of 150 plate appearances, and the gap between him and second (Travis Jankowski) was 3.8%. Bell’s propensity for hitting groundballs, liners and going the opposite way should make him a batting average asset. And unlike against lefties, Bell has no problem with making hard contact against righties with a 35.8% Hard% against them this year.

An occasional stolen-base threat in past seasons (nine steals in 2014 and none more in 2015), Bell stole only three bags last year — all at the Triple-A level. As a non-factor in the stolen base category and a below average contributor in homers (14 at the Triple-A level in 484 plate appearances marked a new career-high), Bell needs to move the needle in run production if he hopes to avoid being a hollow source of batting average. The odds are good for Bell helping fantasy teams in runs scored, even as a poor base runner. Bell recorded a 13.8% BB and .368 OBP, and he netted 107 plate appearances as a table setter in the two-hole for the Buccos. It will be harder to come by RBI if he hits second, but hitting second will not only help Bell’s runs scored total, but it will also award him more at-bats to maximize his positive contribution in batting average.

Bell ranked 25th in Brad Johnson’s “Way Too Early Rankings: First Base.” Brad stated he is, “expecting a 110 game season out of him.” I’m optimistic he’ll play in more games than that, but he’s highly unlikely to reach a full-time player’s workload with David Freese standing out as a natural fit as a platoon mate who faces lefties (159 wRC+ last year and 135 wRC+ for his career). Bump Bell up a few spots in leagues that use OBP, and his value should also be reassessed in other unconventional scoring leagues such as those that penalize for strikeouts and others that use total bases in addition to or in place of homers.

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You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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For both fantasy and real life purposes, i kinda hope he gets a lot of OF reps this offseason. He played there last season after not playing any OF in the minors for a few years. Surely, some of his struggles there were rust-based. I also realize he’ll never be *good* out there.

A bad RF with his offensive profile is a lot more exciting than a bad 1b with his offensive profile on both a fantasy basis and a real-life WAR basis.

It’s just a matter of turning him from a terrible RF into a bad RF.

Jaso looked to change his approach with good results late in the year. The Pirates’ best chance at competing next year might be to take a shot with a Jaso/Freese platoon at 1b, putting Bell in RF hoping for reps to improve him, and trading either Marte or McCutchen for an appropriately valued pitcher.

Worst case scenario becomes that Bell is a dumpster fire in RF and/OR Jaso isn’t hitting. Enter Austin Meadows in June. Meadows to CF, Bell back to 1b, Jaso to bench.