Looking For the 2019 Version of Josh Bell

Josh Bell has long been stuck in a quagmire. He possesses the rare quality of hitting the ball extremely hard (92nd percentile HardHit%) while not striking out much (66th percentile K%); only Juan Soto, Manny Machado, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have a better hard hit rate and better strikeout rate. We’ve seen stretches where this elite combination led to tremendous results, like his two-month tear in 2019 when he put up a 178 wRC+, but for the most part, Bell has settled in as a hitter who falls far short of those lofty heights. And since that breakout 2019, his production has fallen below even his stats before that season, with a 94 wRC+ over his last 634 plate appearances.

One characteristic of Bell’s career is that he is a swing tinkerer. It’s hard to analyze a player when every week you might be looking at a different stance or a new load. If you remember Ben Clemens’ article on Bell from 2019, you may be familiar with some of the tinkering that he has done. That year, he mostly settled into a quieter setup and consistent pre-swing routine, which may have led to his career-low ground-ball rate of 44% and career-high 37 home runs. Fast-forward to this last off-season, when Tony Wolfe wrote up his trade to the Nationals and pointed out that, in 2020, he was back to tinkering with his swing constantly. That is the Josh Bell quagmire: Is he struggling because he’s constantly changing something, or is he constantly changing something because he’s struggling?

I’ve decided to wade into this muck because I never tire of seeing Bell hit home runs, and I simply want there to be more of them. Take the following one, for example:

Notice how he is off-balance. That swing was all arms, and it didn’t matter.

Sure, you’ve seen prodigious power before. You’ve retweeted a Joey Gallo “pop-up” that left the yard or ogled at Franmil Reyes hitting an opposite-field line drive that just never stops going, but those guys strike out over 30% of the time. Bell does weird stuff like that while running a strikeout rate under 20%.

For Bell, home runs haven’t always occurred as often as expected — not because of a lack of power, but more due to his propensity to direct that power into the ground. He has only had a launch angle higher than 10 degrees once in his career, back in 2019, when he reached 13.1 degrees (the league average is 12.4; a launch angle under 10 typically leads to a ground ball). Since then, his launch angle, along with his offensive production, has cratered.

It’s a harsh reminder of how difficult launch angle changes can be not only to fix, but also to maintain. We have a tendency to think that when a player has solved a problem, it’s solved for good. Bell’s launch angle, though, has fallen all the way down to 6 degrees since the beginning of 2020 — lower than before his breakout.

To figure out what is going on with his launch angle, it’s time to see what we can find with video. Bell is a switch-hitter, but I’m going to focus on his swing as a lefty, since that is where about three-quarters of his career plate appearances have come from. It’s also where he has seen a large dip in his production; he’s posted a 94 wRC+ as a lefty the last two seasons compared to a 118 wRC+ in his career through 2019.

As we’ve discussed, the constant changes to Bell’s setup and swing can make him hard to analyze, but I was able to find something that I think is worth noting. When looking at his torrid 2019 stretch and comparing it to the various swings we’ve seen since, I noticed a change in his bat head location after the release of the pitch.

In 2019, Bell’s final bat waggle was more controlled; he brought his hands loaded behind his head, and his bat head remained mostly vertical. Throughout 2021 and dating back into last season, his bat head has been a bit more wild, ultimately ending up angled toward the third base line.

Check out some freeze frames from 2019 compared with this season. These shots are taken at the moment his bat head stops moving and begins driving toward the ball. The bat is highlighted in pink for easier viewing, and all six of these shots are from the same stadium camera to provide a consistent angle.

Even as Bell has made tweaks to his stance this season — like altering his leg kick, something he’s done numerous times in his career — the positioning of his bat head has remained consistently more angled than in 2019.

There are a couple of issues that could come from this. For one, his bat head has to travel further and cover that distance in less time. That extra length could provide more time to build bat speed, but it could also be rushing the swing path, making it less consistent. If his swing path has changed because of where his bat head is starting from, then it could also be changing the approach angle when the bat head meets the ball, therefore altering his launch angle.

It seems pretty clear to me that this change has made his swing path longer, which might show up in his ability to punish fastballs, a pitch that has been a favorite of his throughout his career. Through 2019, Bell’s career wOBA on fastballs was .377 with a 10-degree launch angle — better than the league average rate of .348 — and he put up a blistering .415 wOBA with a 12-degree launch angle on fastballs that season. Since the beginning of last year, though, his production against fastballs has dropped to a .357 wOBA and 5-degree launch angle. It’s possible that the longer swing path is part of that, but looking specifically at extreme velocity should make this even more clear.

Fastballs 96 mph or greater
wOBA Exit Velocity Launch Angle K%
2019 0.342 93.1 10 34.8
2021 0.246 91.6 7 37.1
League Average 0.296 89.3 10 27.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

To make matters worse, the amount of fastballs he’s seeing at this velocity has increased by 4%, which makes sense given the continued league-wide velocity increase. He’s just not catching up to heat as easily as he used to.

The sample size of Bell being an average hitter is increasingly large, and his 2019 breakout is looking more and more like an outlier couple of months. Yet the rare ingredients of a slugger with good contact skills makes him a highly intriguing hitter, if he could only elevate the ball a bit more. I think a more controlled bat head at the start of his swing could help him achieve an optimal swing path, and therefore a better launch angle. After all, a guy who swats titanic homers and only strikes out 19.5% of the time shouldn’t be merely an average hitter.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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1 year ago

It was really just a two month heater in 2019…

Josh Bell 2016-18 | 1355 PAs | 260/348/436 | 110 wRC+
JB 3/28 thru 5/31/2019 | 242 PAs | 343/405/704 | 178 wRC+
JB 6/1 thru 9/13/2019 | 371 PAs | 232/342/476 | 107 wRC+

Ryan DCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

Interesting though that the rest of his 2019 batting line had a different shape than his career line, his ISO went from 0.176 pre-2019 to 0.361 to 0.244, so he was still able to access more power than he had previously.