Every summer, the announcement of MLB’s All-Star Game rosters brings a flood of chatter about who didn’t make the cut. This season, you could make a strong case for the Washington Nationals’ Josh Bell, who stood out in a crowded field at first base in the National League.
When the rosters were unveiled Sunday, Goldschmidt and Alonso were joined on the NL roster by C.J. Cron of the Colorado Rockies, his team’s lone selection. Star outfielder Juan Soto was the Nationals’ only representative. Does he think Bell should be joining him July 19 at Dodger Stadium?
“Yeah, definitely,” Soto said. “He’s putting up the numbers. He has everything to be an all-star. Why not?”
How about hitting coach Darnell Coles?
“I’ll be highly disappointed if he’s not,” Coles said Saturday.
Bell still could make the All-Star Game as an injury replacement, and there’s no question that the 29-year-old has been the Nationals’ most consistent hitter. The switch hitter leads the team in batting average (.304), hits (96) and doubles (19), and he’s second among NL first basemen in batting average and on-base percentage (.386).
When he looks at stats to see how he stacks up against his peers, Bell said, he typically considers on-base-plus-slugging percentage, where he checks in at .877. He’s fourth among NL first basemen — trailing the three NL all-stars and just a tick behind Alonso (.881).
Bell got off to a slow start last year after testing positive for the coronavirus, then found his rhythm toward the end of the season. Entering this year, he wanted to do a better job of taking advantage of runners in scoring position.
In April, Bell felt he hit too many double play balls with men on, a result of thinking too much about moving runners over instead of driving them in. Bell finished the month hitting .365, but 55 percent of the balls he hit were grounders, many of them into the shift. So he changed his approach.
“Sometimes I get caught up in, ‘Just get the runner over,’ ” he said. “But if I can get balls on a line, that’s when the RBIs come. And that’s when the pressure’s off Nelson [Cruz] behind me.”
In June, Bell found the right balance: His groundball percentage dropped to 46.8 percent, and his power numbers increased. He had 16 extra-base hits in June after totaling 12 in the first two months.
Coles said Bell is extremely routine-oriented, which allows him to make adjustments to his swing midseason. But Coles didn’t want Bell to change his swing too much.
“Sometimes what can end up happening is you can overthink things or you can add things that don’t necessarily need to be there,” he said. “He’s been really good about not doing that. And my job is to make sure that he doesn’t take it to a point where [the change] doesn’t make sense.”
Early in his career, no matter which side of the plate he was batting from, Bell’s stances and swings were similar. That changed in 2018 after a conversation with Pittsburgh Pirates teammate David Freese. Freese told Bell that a former Cardinals teammate, Lance Berkman, viewed himself as a different hitter from each side of the plate.
Moving forward, Bell approached the plate with two different swings — and he ended up a 2019 all-star with the Pirates. His right side is his natural one, so his knees are bent and he can let loose with a short, compact swing. The left-handed swing feels less natural: He stands up straight so he can load and generate more power. He focuses on being short with his right hand — his dominant hand — so he can generate a quick swing.
Bell’s preparation and swing adjustments have produced results. But with the numbers he has put together, Bell might not be around much longer, given the Aug. 2 trade deadline and his ability to reach free agency in the offseason. Still, he has made the most of this season — even if he doesn’t make it to the All-Star Game.
“We always work our tails off in the offseason. ... This time last year, I was hitting .224, something like that,” Bell said. “So for me to be able to kind of bounce back after last season, that slow start, and have a strong one, it’s just fueling the fire and knowing that what I’m doing is working.”