Learning curve: Rookie 1B Josh Bell bright spot for Pirates
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By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) The perfectionist in Josh Bell fueled the Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman's incessant climb to the major leagues. To stay, he's learning to let that guy go.
During his steady rise through the minors, Bell would deal with any sort of slump - real or imagined - the only way he knew how: by getting in the batting cage and hitting balls by the hundreds.
The Pirates respected Bell's work ethic. It's one of the reasons they grabbed him in the second round of the 2011 draft, lavishing him with a $5 million signing bonus just to make sure he picked pro baseball over a scholarship to the University of Texas.
Still, manager Clint Hurdle and batting coach Jeff Branson heard the reports of how Bell would tweak his swing again and again and again, a habit that earned the driven and athletic 6-foot-2 switch-hitter the unwanted nickname "Tinker Bell."
When Bell began preparing for his first full season in the majors this spring, Hurdle and Branson encouraged the player that's the cornerstone of the next generation of Pirate regulars to trust his talent and not spend so much time stuck in his own head.
Their message: fail a little to learn a lot. The lesson is paying off for both Bell and the franchise he'll be the face of sooner rather than later.
Heading into the final week of a largely frustrating season for a team that hoped to contend for a playoff berth, Bell has been a revelation both in the field and at the plate.
The 25-year-old leads National League rookies in hits and is second in home runs (24) and RBIs (83) while playing competent and occasionally brilliant defense following a sometimes bumpy transition from the outfield to first base. His home run total is a National League record for a switch-hitting rookie , part of a power surge Bell didn't see coming after clearing the fence just 44 times in nearly 500 games in the minors.
"Two years ago if you told me I was going to hit .250 with 20-plus homers, I'd be like, `Look, I don't believe it'," Bell said.
While Bell's scorching summer has cooled as September wanes, even a recent 4-for-38 slide produced signs of growth. Rather than rebuild his mechanics, Bell worked with Branson to remain focused on the big picture instead of a million tiny ones.
"This `Tinker Bell,' he has not been that guy this year," Branson said. "That's him maturing as a hitter, understanding `I need to stick with one thing and be really, really good at this thing' rather than being OK at a lot of different things."
That means a consistent threat in the middle of a lineup that will likely finish next-to-last in the majors in homers. Sometimes that's going to the plate with the intent of testing the deeper reaches of the park instead of simply getting on base, an adjustment Bell is still making.
"Even in high school, I was more of a contact guy," Bell said. "I'd try never to strike out. I didn't want to be walking back to the dugout."
Bell still doesn't. Yet he's learning to embrace the trade-off, though the 109 strikeouts he brought to the ballpark on Saturday is more than respectable considering he's second on the team in plate appearances behind star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen.
"It's not all about hunting hits," Branson said. "He has such hand-eye coordination that he can do a lot of different things and still put the bat on the ball. That's not what we're looking for him to do in our lineup is just put the bat on the ball. We want him to be in a good position to be able to drive the ball."
No matter the matchup. Bell grew up a switch-hitter but understood he needed to become more of a threat from the right side if he wanted to be an everyday player. Though his splits remain significant (Bell is hitting about 40 points higher left-handed), the gap is closing.
"I'm not getting any 3-2 fastballs down the middle anymore," he said, with a laugh.
And for good reason.
"His left-handed side is where he was very scary from the beginning," Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "You wanted him to hit right-handed, now you're not so sure. You can see he's still working. He's a very impactful player and hitting fourth, you hit the way he does, with good health and as he gets better on defense, he's going to become quite a force."
If the Pirates want to speed up their retooling process as the core that helped them reach the playoffs three straight seasons from 2013-15 moves on, Bell doesn't really have a choice.
McCutchen will almost certainly be gone by the start of the 2019 season. Starling Marte remains an enigma after missing half of this season due to a steroid suspension and Gregory Polanco remains unable to put all the pieces together, leaving Bell as the de facto leader-in-waiting.
It's a role Bell is comfortable with, pointing out he's always been the focal point at every level. Yes, seeing No. 55 jerseys dotting the stands at PNC Park is cool. It's just not as meaningful as playing important games in September and beyond, something Bell believes isn't far away.
"You just want to have sellout crowds to play in front of because you're contending," Bell said. "That's going to sell more jerseys than me just being the face because the Pirates put me in the lineup."
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Updated September 23, 2017