Josh Bell is 22 games and 90 plate appearances into the 2021 season. That’s a small sample size and it’s come on the heels of Bell being forced to quarantine at home for the Nationals’ first six games due to being connected to the team’s pre-Opening Day coronavirus outbreak. But as far as 22-game stretches go, Bell’s start has been a particularly rough one.
Following an 0-4 outing in Tuesday’s 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Bell is hitting .134 with three home runs, four doubles, six walks and 26 strikeouts. That’s the lowest batting average in Nationals history (2005-present) for a non-pitcher in his first 22 games with at least 20 of them being starts, per Baseball-Reference. His .493 OPS would rank as the fourth-worst in the majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
“I feel like I’m not gonna stop searching until I’m really producing,” Bell said on a Zoom call after the game. “I feel like as of right now, as of that last at-bat that I had left-handed, I felt like I was in a really good place to drive the baseball. I’m finally getting swings off on balls down and in. It seems like in the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking those pitches. So I feel like I’m climbing even though the batting average is dropping.
“Mentally, I think that I’m in a really, really good place, like really close to breaking this thing out. It’s just about getting results now.”
Meanwhile, backup first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is on a tear to begin the season. His pinch-hit double in the seventh inning Tuesday helped raise his OPS to .913. The 36-year-old has embraced a scaled-back role of playing part-time behind Bell, protecting his health after injuries limited his ability to contribute over the last seven years. In 61 plate appearances, Zimmerman has accrued four home runs, two doubles, three walks and 16 strikeouts while hitting .310.
So far, Nationals manager Davey Martinez hasn’t wavered in his commitment to Bell, who hit third in the lineup Tuesday behind Trea Turner and Juan Soto. When asked before the game when he might consider playing Zimmerman over Bell if the latter continues to struggle, Martinez stressed Bell’s importance to the Nationals’ success.
“Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you that right now,” Martinez said. “I know what Josh Bell can do. He’s done it in the past so he’s gonna get the opportunity to play. It’s still early for him. I think he’s getting close. I really do. The other day, he hit a bullet to left-center field so that’s a good sign. They’re both gonna get a chance to play obviously but we signed Josh Bell to be our first baseman and he’s our first baseman. I will get Zim in there when I deem possible or feel that it’s the right matchup.
“Josh, I know I believe in Josh and I know what he can do so we gotta get him going. I’ve said this before, we’re not gonna win without him. He’s a big part of our lineup and I truly believe that.”
Bell's struggles have only been exacerbated by the overall offense's failure to get going. The Nationals are scoring the third-fewest runs per game (3.58) in the majors while players such as Bell, Kyle Schwarber (hitting .198) and Victor Robles (.226) have turned in disappointing starts after beginning the year holding key spots in the lineup.
Washington acquired Bell in a Christmas Eve trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, bringing the 2019 All-Star to D.C. with a chance to rediscover his stroke at the plate after a rough 2020 campaign. Bell was no sure bet to produce consistently given how streaky he was even in his best season. In 2019, he had three separate months with an OPS over .900, but also had two where he finished below .800. Twelve of his 37 home runs came in the month of May alone.
It's important to mention that there are statistics that say Bell should be off to a better start. He entered play Tuesday with a batting average on balls in play of .160, well below his career average of .284. That number should go up as he continues to play. According to FanGraphs, Bell also has a hard-hit rate of 41.5%, which is a few ticks above his career norm.
“I wouldn’t call it unlucky,” Bell said. “Baseball is tough, that’s what I’ll say. Baseball is not an easy game but when I’m right, it really doesn’t matter where guys are playing. I’m hitting the ball hard enough to beat them. And just on a regular basis, I can’t be striking out at the clip that I’m striking out. I’m having way too long of at-bats and I’m not capitalizing on mistakes right now so it’s just been tough.”
Yet the real glaring number is his strikeout rate of 30.2%. He never finished a season with a strikeout rate above 20% until 2020, when he posted a 26.5%. Now, that number has risen even higher. Bell isn’t willing to make excuses nor point to luck as an indicator of why. He said Tuesday that he feels close and appreciates Martinez’s commitment to getting him going.
Zimmerman may not be an everyday player who can suit up six or seven times a week, but his productivity at the plate becomes increasingly harder to ignore with every at-bat Bell fails to capitalize on.