Nationals

Josh Bell represents a league-wide question: What to make of 2020?

Nationals

So many things of the offseason are unclear, keeping with the trend since last February.

Should teams spend without knowing what revenue looks like for next season? What will the rules be? How much will things be back to normal?

Among those questions is one that relates to spending: Was 2020 on-field performance a fluke or valid?

Juan Soto reached base almost half the time. Christian Yelich, coming off seasons of winning the National League MVP in 2018 then finishing second in 2019, hit .205 in 2020.

Freddie Freeman remained his reliable self on the way to the NL MVP Award. Mookie Betts played like Mookie Betts for the Dodgers. Other players never found their footing. One was Josh Bell.

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Bell finished with a .669 OPS, almost 300 points below his .936 OPS in 2019, which led to him being Pittsburgh’s lone all-star. Most of his 2019 work happened in the first half of the season. His pre-All-Star OPS of 1.024 dipped to .780 in the second half. So, the last 112 games -- 55 in 2019 and 57 in 2020 -- counter Bell’s uptick from 2017 until the mid-point of 2019. Was his 2020 just an outlier? Or further evidence of step backs that started in the second half of 2019?

“Looking back at this past year, I think that things got long,” Bell said Saturday on a Zoom call. “I feel like I was kind of jerking into my front side just a little more than I'd like to. Wasn't necessarily -- the expression is if you're going to watch a movie would you rather watch it from the back seat of the movie theater or the front seat? Obviously, you would want to watch it from the back seat. So I just kind of was jumping toward the ball. And that doesn't play at this level, that doesn't play with guys with high velo.

 

“And just without video and things like that to really be able to dive in at-bat to at-bat, I wasn't able to make the adjustments in-game that I'd like to. So yeah, things kind of just sped up on me for a little bit, but I was able to ... I looked up 30 games into the season and I was hitting .180, something I've never done. But across the league you just saw different guys doing the same thing, so struggles across the board. But some people raked, you saw that with Soto. He had a blast last year, obviously, so hopefully next year I can be a part of that group and turn things around."

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Mike Rizzo said batting coach Kevin Long has a distinct plan for Bell. He also, not surprisingly, is touting the 2019 version of Bell as the player the Nationals acquired in a low-risk deal which appears set to provide an offensive upgrade at first base. The Nationals’ official Twitter count went so far as to build a graphic strictly around Bell’s 2019 numbers.

And, he could well be a “bounceback” candidate like many other players across the league. Bell said he never felt established with the rhythm of the season or his preparation beforehand. It’s a sentiment so many players expressed during the wonky three-months sprint.

The Nationals need Bell to be the 2019 version of himself. Rizzo repeatedly labeled Bell a middle-of-the-order hitter (he didn’t precisely say where, deferring to Davey Martinez). Washington needs to frame some power around Soto -- even if lineup protection has largely proven to be a myth. Soto will be walked at a high frequency next year and often intentionally no matter who hits behind him.

However, the Nationals are trying to return to that “long” lineup of 2019. Bell is a switch-hitter with a .466 career slugging percentage. He is better against right-handed pitching, so the Nationals are likely to pair him with a right-handed partner. And, theoretically, he should benefit from having better hitters around him than he did with the hapless Pittsburgh teams of recent seasons.

The question will just be which version of Bell, 28, shows up at Nationals Park in 2021. The rising star who is at what is often a baseball player’s prime? Or a guy who appeared to have it figured out, only to become one of the many who never again found their footing in such a relentless sport?