Nationals Baseball: December 2020

Monday, December 28, 2020

Josh Bell - Middle of the Order Bat?

Welcome back from my Holiday break. Yes all December is a holiday.  How does one expect to watch Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies if I'm bothering typing out posts?

The positional review will continue but first the Nats made a big move. Well maybe not a big move but a move that will be important for the 2021 season.  The Nats traded for Josh Bell to play first base.

The Nats have not had a great first base situation in a long while working around the perennially injured and rapidly petrifying Ryan Zimmerman.  Last year they had the possibly the worst situation in baseball with Zimm out, Eric Thames playing his way out of the league, and As Cab out of position having an off year. This year offered little hope of improvement from what was on the roster currently, especially after Kendrick decided to retire. Maybe you can work around a subpar 1B situation when you have an All-Star 3B but with Rendon now on the West Coast letting 1B stay fallow seemed like a luxury that the team could no longer afford.

Josh Bell is an interesting pick-up. Going though the general thoughts about him, the first thing is that he's cheap. He's still under team control for the next couple of years meaning a couple of team friendly contracts await in 2021 and 2022. That gives the Nats flexibility if they want to make a big money move. He's neither old nor young, He'll be 28 going on 29 next season. That's past the time you expect to find something new about a player but before the time you expect significant drop off. So most likely he is who he is. 

What exactly is that? 

Well if you look at 2016-2018 he's a guy who hits ok, has a good eye and doesn't strike out too much, but could use a little more pop. He doesn't offer much in the way of speed or defense. Overall, not a liability but not much of a help either. At another position this would be a plus, but he's a stop gap first baseman to cover the position for a couple years until you come up with a better plan. 

If you look at 2019 - he's got that pop and he's a good addition to the team. 

If you look at 2020 -  he's lost a lot of his eye at the plate, leaving him with far fewer walks, far more strikeouts, and not the guy you want to have at first. 

Which is the most real?  You hate to judge anything based on last years weird season, but the past two years have been a wild ride. In 2019 he suddenly started hitting everything in the air, very hard, and getting around on the ball. In 2020 the angle was suddenly reversed and he was pounding everything into the ground. It was still kind of hard and he was kind of getting around on it but the extreme change was enough to kill his offense completely. 

When you see such a change you look first to see if the pitches he's seen has changed. They have! He's gotten a few more off-speed pitches and a few fewer fastballs but that doesn't look to simply be it because the FB% dropped and off-speed% went up in 2019 when he hit much better. But that begs the question - maybe 2019 was split? A fast start followed by an adjustment by the league? 

And yep that's what you see.

First 61 games : .338 / .398 / .692

Last  games : .229 / .344 / .471

Certainly seems like the league either figured something out or something went wrong here, and whatever they figured out or went wrong continued into 2020.  

We could take this further and look at monthly pitch  percentages to be more sure that the pitches changed and yep they did, steadily fewer fastballs and more junk. But we see something similar in 2020, the league starting back up with a lot more hard stuff*

To put the nail in the coffin here we'd see a faster start for Josh in 2020 and we DON'T see that - but July was only 7 games so we kind of have to throw that out. What's more interesting is despite the decrease in fastballs and increase in breaking stuff September October was better than August. Of course those final stats were a lot more like his 2016-2018 stats, than anything else. The Ks were back down, the walks back up.

If you want to tell yourself a narrative, Josh Bell was what I described - a usable but unimpressive stop gap first baseman with not enough going for him to get that big contract when getting to FA. He tried to adjust his batting to create more power and more value and it worked great, but the league quickly figured him out making things worse than before. Before the season after the change was through Josh had resigned to hitting as he had before.

What this means for the Nats is someone not likely to be the big bat or much or a protector for Juan Soto behind him in the lineup.  However, if the Nats employ him AHEAD of Soto they might see something. They could try pitching to Bell giving him pitches to hit and he might be able to get back some of the 2019 power increase, or maybe they pitch around him and he can work a walk getting on base for Soto. This is a move that can make the Nats better than last year with some proper thought (and some luck of course). However it's not a guarantee of a better offense and in a division that's been tough and looks to stay that way the Nats need more. 

 What did the Nats give up? Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean.  Eddy is a lottery ticket. A 19 year old who keeps the ball in the park with a solid 2019 but lacking swing and miss stuff.  Wil Crowe is the key piece but that's sad because all Wil Crowe likely is is a 5th starter if the Pirates are lucky.  He's a guy with four pitches but no killer pitch. He likes his slider and his fastball has some speed but he doesn't do anything particularly well (control, Ks, GB rate) so he will put people on base and some of them will score. The hope the Pirates have is he develops that one great pitch allowing him to use everything else as a set up for that but it's getting close to the end of the time where that might happen. The Nats didn't lose anything they need here.

*Why do they do this? Throwing fastballs is easier. We've talked about this before but you try to beat players with the easiest stuff for you to throw. Can they hit major league fastballs in the zone? If they can't you've expended no effort and gotten the outcome you wanted. Most players can so you move on to different pitches and moving the ball around.