SOUTH HILLS – As impressive as Josh Bell was at the plate as a rookie, we all know about the defensive issues.
As I made note of Monday, John Jaso – according to WAR – was more valuable than Bell in 2016 due to Bell’s defensive issues.
After initially being used exclusively at first base after his call-up, Bell began to play more in right field later in the season, his natural position.
But according to Defensive Runs Saved, Bell was actually worse in the outfield than as a first baseman.
Innings Defensive Runs Saved
1B 150 1/3 -3
RF 108 1/3 -5
After the Pirates initially seemed intent on making Bell exclusively a first baseman, the team later pivoted to keeping all their options open with Bell.
Said Bell to MLB.com’s Adam Berry: “That’s going to be my main focus, making sure I’m more versatile next year. You have a few guys in every lineup that can play all over the field. Those guys are your most valuable players. I hope to be one of those guys next year.”
Said manager Clint Hurdle at the close of the season about Bell in the outfield:
“We have some ideas for his throwing mechanics. They’ve started to get in place. Some new things we are talking about at the major league level to give him to work on in the offseason going into next year … One of the nice things to revisit is the flexibility to play in the infield and the outfield and see how that plays out. At first base he’s showed the ability to lay out and get some balls. Then there’s been some plays show up you expect more. It’s all about work. It’s all about effort. He’s going to give you the work and the effort. You have to like the battle in the box. Sometimes you have to give to get and our thoughts and beliefs are we can help him improve defensively. … Our challenge is being a groundball team we get a lot more opportunities than some teams do. We have to be creative and think outside the box.”
With Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco under contract and Austin Meadows close to arriving, regardless of what the Pirates do with Andrew McCutchen the Pirates don’t need Bell as an outfielder in the long term.
Bell ideally would fit at first base as an everyday player. As a switch-hitter, Bell would eliminate the need for a first base platoon, which the Pirates have been employing since 2013. That would essentially free up a 25-man roster spot. And by focusing on one position, ideally, a player develops more skill at that position.
But the ground-ball nature of the Pirates’ staff complicates defensive issues at first base. And the Pirates are a team, I believe, that has tried to better understand the value of first base defense (such as the ability to scoop and pick throws, etc). Perhaps it would be easier to hide Bell in right field at PNC Park. And if, say, McCutchen was traded this offseason the Pirates would need an outfielder until Meadows is ready.
What will be curious to follow is if Bell’s outfield defense – everything from routes to throwing arm – improves next season if he indeed spends more time in the outfield. Bell was playing about once a week in the outfield during the minor league season.
Bell is kind of like the Pirates’ Kyle Schwarber. A big bat without a defensive home. The bat will play but where will the glove do the least damage? Where does the glove fit on a team that has experienced a four-year decline in defensive ability? How do the Pirates mix and match with Jaso, David Freese and Bell? It will be an interesting story to follow.
CAN RIVERO BE MILLER LITE?
It’s been fun to watch Cleveland manager Terry Francona creatively employ Andrew Miller, one of the top relief arms in the game, this postseason. It will be interesting to see if this has ripple effect throughout baseball next season, if more managers are more creative in employing their top relief arms.
It should perhaps have the Pirates considering how to use their best reliever, which projects to be Felipe Rivero.
For a team in search of wins and value at the margins, bringing Rivero in in critical situations at any point in the game could and should improve the Pirates’ win probability. Miller has shown that relievers will not melt if they are moved out of traditional roles.
It will be interesting to see if Hurdle eventually departs from traditional thought regarding the bullpen the same way he has with defensive alignment. (Though with three power lefties, Hurdle could use Rivero as a lefty relief ace and simply keep Tony Watson in the closer role).
Now, there are other factors at play when considering bullpen roles – like players’ salaries in arbitration enhanced by saves recorded – but it is something to watch. It has always made sense to move away from traditional, defined roles. And now there is a model to follow.