Shortly after Josh Bell was traded to the Washington Nationals this offseason, infield coach Tim Bogar reached out to the first baseman. Bogar lives only about 20 minutes from Bell’s house in Texas, and he saw an opportunity to get a head start on the task ahead at spring training.
Working at an infield facility, Bell was fielding grounders hit by his father and throwing into a net. Bogar looked on, offered feedback and made suggestions along the way.
When it comes to Bell, ability at the plate has never been in question — even after a down season in 2020 in which he hit .226. Instead, Bell’s defense often draws the most critique, and that’s the area that might be most concerning to the Nationals.
But Washington believes in Bell, and those offseason sessions with Bogar might’ve fostered something more important — Bell believes in himself.
“He kind of laid a little foundation for me to work on some things coming into camp,” Bell said. “I think he did just that: laid a good foundation, and I feel really good.”
In five seasons in Pittsburgh, Bell proved to be a dangerous hitter. He clubbed 37 home runs in 2019 while hitting .277, earning an All-Star nod in the best year of his career. While the 28-year-old regressed in 2020, the Nationals are banking on a resurgence at the plate. In spring training games so far, Bell is hitting well.
On defense, he’s more of a mixed bag, scooping some low throws while bobbling some short hops.
“I’m not going to judge Josh Bell in four or five spring training games, nor will I judge his offensive improvement in four or five games,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “These guys are in preparation mode, they’re getting ready, and when the Bell rings April 1st, he’ll be ready offensively and defensively, and I’ll feel comfortable that he’s over there.”
Bell had 17 errors combined in his last two seasons with the Pirates, and eight of those were throwing mistakes. According to FanGraphs, Bell’s defensive runs saved above average was -8 in 2019, his last full season, and his ultimate zone rating per 150 defensive games over his career is -9.7 — well below league average.
And on plays ranging from a 1% probability of successfully fielding to a 60% chance, Bell frequently came up short. In 2020, he converted three of the 30 possible plays falling within that range, according to FanGraphs data.
But early in spring training, Bell said he’s been picking fellow first baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s brain. They discuss footwork, what arm slots to use on throws to second base and how to stay down on ground balls.
“He is a big guy, but he can really move,” Zimmerman said. “He’s light on his feet. He wants to work. He wants to get better. For all the talk about his defense, he’s been really good.”
The Nationals will know more once spring training winds to a close and plays of any consequence begin on opening day. But the early sentiment around Bell is that his defense isn’t the detriment it’s often made out to be, and those sessions with Bogar may have given Bell the leg up he needed.
“Baseball is all about being confident,” Zimmerman said. “And the more we can work together and the more we can put him in situations where he succeeds and where he feels comfortable, you guys are going to see how good a fielder he really is.”