MLB Teams
Jerry Crasnick, ESPN Senior Writer 467d

Josh Bell is the best rookie you haven't heard of yet

MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates

Some players become switch-hitters to hasten their paths through professional ball. Josh Bell learned the drill somewhere between preschool and kindergarten. His father, Earnest, was a wide receiver and track star at Southern University, and he saw the requisite coordination in his son to think the arrangement might work. So he handed the boy a bat, and from T-ball through Little League, the younger Bell alternated between hitting from the left side and the right during games.

"It was fun to give the pitcher a different look," Bell said. "It was cool to be able to hit homers from both sides of the plate at a young age."

Some competitive thrills withstand the test of time. As Bell has discovered in his first full season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, it's equally cool hitting home runs and circling the bases against the likes of Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester and CC Sabathia.

Bell, 25, is tied for third among MLB rookies with 22 home runs this season. He also leads National League rookies with 118 hits and 54 walks and is second with 220 total bases. His 76 RBIs are the most by a Pirates rookie since Jason Bay drove in 82 in 2004.

Most years, those kinds of numbers might brand him as a Rookie of the Year front-runner. But it's not a great year for steady and consistent. Much like Baltimore's Trey Mancini, whose American League candidacy was steamrolled by Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge's ascendance, Bell has fallen through the cracks. The Dodgers' Cody Bellinger took care of that with a historic performance through July, and Philadelphia's Rhys Hoskins has grabbed most of the national attention of late with an unprecedented home run binge.

Amid a relative publicity vacuum, Bell continues to be a bright spot in a disappointing season for the Pirates. Among the onlookers he's impressed: teammate Andrew McCutchen, who dealt with some onerous expectations as a former first-round pick en route to an MVP award and five All-Star appearances by age 28.

McCutchen has taken note of the way Bell pays attention and plugs away each day. With his performance this year, Bell has surpassed Starling Marte, who got popped for an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension in April, and Gregory Polanco, who has disappointed and is oft-injured, as the heir to McCutchen's franchise-face designation in Pittsburgh.

"You're here for a reason,'' McCutchen said. "When you come up, it's because of the things you've already done to get you here. I try to remind him, 'Don't feel like you have to do more. Just do what you've been doing.' He has a pretty good feel from there. I haven't had to give him much advice on anything, really. The only time I do is when there's a pitcher on the mound he's never faced. That's basically it.

"He has it down pat beyond that. He's created his own lane -- his own destiny. The sky's the limit for him.''

Bell has been thoroughly scrutinized in Pittsburgh since he passed on a scholarship offer from the University of Texas in 2011 to sign for a $5 million bonus -- a record for a second-round draft pick. During his rung-by-rung progression through the system in West Virginia, Bradenton (Fla.), Altoona (Pa.) and Indianapolis, he showed an impressive knack for putting the bat on the ball. In 2,105 minor league plate appearances, Bell struck out a modest 305 times.

When Bell's big opportunity with the parent club arrived this spring, his body was slow to oblige. He underwent surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee in early February and hit .116 in 43 Grapefruit League at-bats. Once the regular season began, pitchers pounded him incessantly inside and he had difficulty getting the bat head through the zone against the hard stuff.

Bell picked up the pace after the All-Star break following a conversation with veterans David Freese and John Jaso in early July. When they asked him to share his mindset in the batter's box, he told them he had been keying in on changeups or soft stuff away, because he was having problems with the heat. Both veterans told him it was time to scrap that plan, focus on fastballs in the heart of the plate and adjust accordingly.

"They told me, 'You can't guess. This isn't a crapshoot. This isn't gambling,'" Bell said. "So I started to sit on fastballs down the middle and let my body and my hand-eye coordination take over instead of trying to think my way into a base hit. For the most part, the last couple of months have been a night-and-day difference. I'm driving the ball the way I want to and I'm not striking out the way I was back then."

Bell is a favorite among scouts because of his energy and passion for the game. During the Pirates' recent visit to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he wasn't quite as popular as St. Louis' Tommy Pham and Yadier Molina, who sprung for 200 snow cones for the Little Leaguers in attendance, but Bell drove in four runs with a single and a homer in a 6-3 Pirates' victory and was clearly in his element.

While some scouts regard him as a player without a position, the metrics attest to Bell's progress at first base, as he's posted a creditable plus-2 Defensive Runs Saved at the position.

"He's a pure hitter with hard contact and power from both sides of the plate,'' said an AL scout. "It takes a lot of effort for him to play defense, but he works hard. From my side, he looks like a great kid with a desire to get better.''

Bell's formative years in the oppressive Dallas heat helped prepare him for the rigors of an MLB season. He appeared in 131 of the Pirates' first 133 games, and he stays limber and mentally centered thanks in part to a yoga regimen that he added to his routine last winter. Bell was officially sold when he attended a hot yoga session in Dallas. He began the workout drenched in sweat and walked out feeling "like a million bucks.''

"It's about controlling your central nervous system,'' Bell said. "You're at a point where you're like, 'I can't go any further.' Then you tell yourself, 'Let's breathe though this posture and this moment,' and you find yourself relaxing. That correlates to baseball. If it's the bases loaded and the bottom of the ninth, it's natural to think, 'Oh my gosh, it's (Aroldis) Chapman.' Instead, you say, 'Let's breathe through this. I'm either going to get a hit or make an out. It's one of the two alternatives.' You're like 'let's play' instead of 'let's panic.'''

The Pittsburgh veterans provide advice and motivation to aid Bell in his daily quest. Bell and McCutchen have developed a friendly competition and keep a running tally of which player hits the ball harder in batting practice and games. McCutchen routinely jokes that Bell wouldn't be nearly as successful if he didn't come to the plate with McCutchen on base so often.

"It also helps that he's not a Yankee or a Dodger,'' McCutchen said. "He doesn't have to worry about having 30 or 50 people in the clubhouse and constantly being in the newspapers and on TV and having his face plastered everywhere. He gets to relax and be himself without having too many people in his ear saying he needs to do better. That helps.''

The learning curve never ends. When Bell was playing for Bradenton in the Florida State League in 2014 and Neil Walker showed up on a rehab assignment, Bell grilled him on the nuances of keeping two swings honed as a switch-hitter. Bell is slashing .276/.357/.512 from the left side and .217/.288/.415 from the right this season, and he's found it challenging to stay sharp as a righty because his plate appearances are so sporadic. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, he also has a lot of moving parts to monitor.

"It's all about having a feel for your swing,'' Bell said. "You have to know where your body is in space and time. You have to get your foot down and throw your hips at a certain period in time, and finally throw your hands. I try to keep things more simple right-handed and get my foot down early.''

Bell's off-field pursuits have taught him that he's a lot more dangerous with a baseball bat than a 3-wood in his hands.

"I've tried golfing twice,'' he said. "I switch back and forth and it's slicing all over the place. It's pretty bad. So I'm just gonna stick with baseball for now.''

In hindsight, Earnest Bell picked the right sport and the correct approach for his prodigal son. Josh Bell is making the folks back home proud and bringing hope to fans in Pittsburgh as he carves out his destiny.

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