By the time Josh Bell arrived back at the ballpark, he had only gotten three hours of sleep. The slumping slugger had spent much of the previous night — and the early morning hours — studying film, analyzing what was going wrong at the plate and racking his mind for solutions.
Bell had been doing that quite a bit to start the season, a side effect of beginning the season batting .133 with 28 strikeouts in 23 games. But something clicked in the pre-dawn hours of May 13, an insight into how he could change his fortunes early in his first year with the Washington Nationals.
Later that day, when he dug into the batter’s box for the series finale against the Philadelphia Phillies, Bell’s inkling that he was on the verge of a turnaround came to fruition, as he cranked a first-pitch slider 445 feet out of Nationals Park.
In the next 11 games, Bell hit .395 with five extra-base hits and nine RBIs. It may have taken Bell some time to find his footing, but the Nationals’ decision to trade for him this offseason is beginning to pay off.
Before Bell hit that two-run shot May 13, he arrived at the stadium early to work with hitting coach Kevin Long. For the first 15 to 20 minutes, he didn’t face any pitching. Instead, the pair worked on Bell’s stance, aiming to keep his shoulders more square — and by extension, allowing his bat head to stay through the zone rather than jumping out at the baseball.
That was an issue for Bell early on this season. His swing took too long to get through the zone, leading to foul balls or whiffs on pitches he felt as though he should be crushing. And beyond that, when he did make contact, the result was often a groundball.
When Bell crossed home plate, he allowed himself to pump his fist, excited that his work that night and morning immediately paid dividends at the plate in a game.
“He works harder than anyone,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “I’m not surprised by that swing [May 13], and I’m not going to be surprised when he’s going 4-for-4 with two homers and a double. It’s just a matter of time.”
In Bell’s best season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, his average launch angle was 13 degrees. He blasted 37 home runs to go with his .936 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He regressed in the coronavirus-altered 2020 campaign, but general manager Mike Rizzo banked on a return to form in Washington.
Those signs are clearly visible with his recent run of form. Bell has a 1.137 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through his previous 11 games, and his batting average is .112 percentage points above the Nationals’ team average during that span.
“I think that just solidifying my load and not allowing my barrel to tip out over the plate allowed me more time,” Bell said, “and allowed me to stay a little cleaner through the baseball.”
Bell, a switch-hitter, has produced noticeably better results from the left side of the plate against right-handed pitching. He’s hitting .242 with five homers as a lefty, but his average sits at .115 when he hits right-handed.
On Tuesday, though, Bell finally broke through with a right-handed homer, clubbing a fastball left over the zone into the bleachers.
“I thought he had a great at-bat,” Martinez said. “He laid off some pretty good sliders in the dirt. And then he got a ball up where he can handle, and he smoked it to left-center field. That’s good for us. If he can start doing that right-handed, we’re gonna be in great shape.”
It’s those moments that give confidence that Bell’s turnaround can last longer than an 11-game burst, turning into the norm rather than the upswing in a roller coaster start to his Nationals tenure.
Bell broke through with that late-night video review and early morning session with Long. Now the question is if he can sustain those recent performances.
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