Try as he might to ignore it at the time, Josh Bell couldn’t avoid knowing his stat line on May 13, the low point of a 2021 season that was shaping up to be a disaster.
The big slugger, in his first season with the Nationals, was batting .133 with three homers, 10 RBIs, a .198 on-base percentage, .289 slugging percentage and .487 OPS that ranked among the lowest in the majors. And this was with the season nearly one-quarter complete.
So imagine what Bell thinks these days when he sees his season totals flash on the scoreboard as he steps to the plate. A .252 batting average, team-high 26 homers to go along with 81 RBIs, a .326 on-base percentage, .486 slugging percentage and .812 OPS that ranks 26th among all qualifying National League hitters.
“I feel good as of late,” he told reporters in Pittsburgh prior to Friday night’s game. “I had a really rough start that I had to work my way out of. Thank God it wasn’t a 60-game season again. I kind of turned things around.”
Did he ever. With another big showing Friday during what wound up a 4-3 loss to the Pirates, Bell continued to distance himself from his awful start to the season and set himself up to head into the winter with every reason to feel good about the way 2021 ultimately went.
In the 100 games he’s played since May 13, he’s hit .281 with 23 homers, 71 RBIs, a .357 on-base percentage, .533 slugging percentage and .890 OPS.
“I’ve said this many times: He’s been unbelievable,” manager Davey Martinez said recently in a Zoom session with reporters. “Offensively, he’s been great. I can only imagine if he wasn’t ill the first month of the season, the numbers he would’ve put up for us. Since then, he’s been incredible. ... He’s been the player we thought we traded for. For me, he’s had a great year.”
It feels like eons ago, but Bell indeed opened his first season with the Nationals on the COVID-19 injured list. After a fantastic spring training that left everyone eager to see what he could do once the lights turned on for good, he learned he was one of the four players who tested positive for the coronavirus and had to miss the team’s delayed opening day.
Bell was back after one week, but whatever positive momentum he hoped to bring north with him from Florida disappeared. And it didn’t return until mid-May, at which point some might’ve already given up on him.
“It was tough at first going into camp, and I had a lot of success,” he said. “Got sick there for a little bit, so I was trying to ride the wave from spring training and see if it could still work, and it really wasn’t. Finally, I had that breaking point where I was like: All right, let’s get it. Let’s work. I’ve definitely been working every day in the cage for a long period of time trying to get things right.”
The difference, according to Bell, was relenting to hitting coach Kevin Long’s insistence that he needed to make some swing changes that would allow him to start hitting more line drives and fly balls than the litany of grounders that defined those early season at-bats.
“I was kind of stubborn at first, thinking that things would go my way,” he said. “Guys were just pitching me in a way where I wasn’t going to get balls in the air unless I worked the way he told me to work. Stay in my legs, stay through balls. The last few weeks, I’ve felt good and hopefully I can finish strong.”
Bell also has shown significant improvement in his plate discipline, drawing 15 walks in his last 20 games, including a pair Friday night. Perhaps Juan Soto’s approach is starting to rub off on him.
Bell isn’t going to finish with anything close to Soto’s walks or on-base percentage numbers, but he is neck-and-neck with the star 22-year-old in homers and RBIs. The two have turned into quite a potent 3-4 combo in the heart of the Nationals lineup, and there doesn’t seem to be any question at this point the Nats will want him back next season, even though he’s set to become a free agent after that.
They’ll do so knowing not to get preoccupied with Bell’s stats at any given point within a season. By the time October arrives, he’ll have produced just as he was expected to all along.
“You see now, he’s potentially got a chance to drive in 90-plus RBIs, get close to 30 homers,” Martinez said. “He’s doing well. He’s swinging the bat really well. In the clubhouse, he’s been that guy. He’s just been everything we thought he’d be. He’s been tremendous.”