Reduction in strikeouts may be Bell's biggest improvement

There are any number of ways to articulate how well Josh Bell has hit for the Nationals so far this season. The .342 batting average is an obvious one, as is the .434 on-base percentage. Each ranks third among all qualifying National League hitters.

There’s another, less obvious way to underscore Bell’s success to date: His lack of strikeouts.

Consider that the 29-year-old first baseman has struck out only 15 times in 138 plate appearances so far this season. Only four qualifying NL hitters have struck out fewer times, and they’re all contact-happy middle infielders: Jose Iglesias, Miguel Rojas, Nico Hoerner and Jeff McNeil.

Bell? He’s one of the most intimidating physical presences in the batter’s box in the majors, a 261-pound slugger who seems to want to hit the ball as hard as he can every time he swings.

Looks, however, can be deceiving.

“I played with a guy that it looked like he struck out a lot, but the guy hit .345-.350 every year: Frank Thomas,” Nats manager Davey Martinez said, citing one of the most physically imposing hitters in baseball history. “He put the ball in play.”

Bell has a long way to go to earn legitimate comparisons to The Big Hurt, but his ability to put the bat on the ball and avoid swings and misses so far this season has been, well, striking.

After striking out 100 or more times in each of his four full big league seasons, Bell currently is on pace to strike out only 71 times this year. His 10.9 percent strikeout rate is way down from his 17.8 percent mark last season and even more dramatically down from his career-worst 26.5 percent rate in 2020 with the Pirates.

What has allowed this significant change? Bell says he’s simply not missing good pitches to hit when he gets them.

“I feel like there are times when you’re playing the game, and you’re fouling off balls that you shouldn’t be fouling off, and the at-bat should be over, and I haven’t really had those at-bats as much,” he said. “I’m ending at-bats when I should. So that helps a ton. I’m not fouling off the cookies. Aside from that, I think it’s just simplicity, trying to hit the ball low and hard. And if I can’t do that, it’s probably not a strike. So it’s my mentality feeding into the process there.”

Bell entered the season determined to make more contact and reduce his swings and misses, and the results so far have been tremendously encouraging. He’s hitting more line drives (26.5 percent rate, best of his career) and using the opposite field more (18.4 percent rate, best since 2018).

“Kudos to him,” Martinez said. “He came to spring training wanting to cut down (on his swing). He felt like if he could put the ball in play more, he could hit the ball hard and create better at-bats, and he’s done that. You can see the results. He’s up there in the league in hitting, but he’s still hitting the ball hard.”

Bell’s success hasn’t been confined to this season. After his abysmal start to 2021 following his season opening stint on the COVID-19 injured list, he took off beginning May 13. Having just passed the one year anniversary of that date, here are Bell’s total stats during that 365-day period: a .299/.389/.513 offensive slash line with 28 homers and 99 RBIs.

The lack of strikeouts, though, may be the most telling stat. During his difficult opening six-week stretch in 2021, he struck out in a whopping 30.8 percent of his plate appearances. He cut that number in half the rest of the way, striking out only 15.3 percent of the time.

“When he moves the baseball, good things happen,” Martinez said. “When you strike out, the only thing you can do is go back and watch video and see what went wrong.”

Which explains in part why Bell doesn’t find himself watching much video these days. He typically doesn’t like to overanalyze his swing, certainly not when things are going well. He trusts that he understands how he feels when he’s performing well and will be able to duplicate that in future at-bats.

“If I was struggling, I’d probably be looking for answers,” Bell said. “And right now, it’s just trusting the mentality. I know if I have a swing that I like, it’s kind of looking at where the pitch was. But for the most part, my swing itself has stayed the same, even on different contact points. That’s where I want to be.”

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