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Josh Bell Traded to Nationals: Fantasy Baseball Takeaways

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Dec 26, 2020

The Pirates sent slugging first baseman Josh Bell to the Nationals in exchange for two young pitchers.

Baseball fans were treated to a mini Christmas miracle on the eve of the big day, as we were blessed with another noteworthy transaction to get excited about. Of course, this wound up being another small market team sending away an asset escalating in price, as the Pittsburgh Pirates sent slugging first baseman Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals in exchange for two young pitchers. The two right-handers Pittsburgh received in return – Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean – are unlikely to contribute in fantasy baseball anytime soon, so the takeaways of this blog will solely focus on Bell. Let’s dive in.

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Bell was a second-round pick of the Pirates from the stacked 2011 amateur draft. He debuted in the big leagues in 2016 but for several years struggled to put it all together. That changed at the start of the 2019 campaign as Bell rode a roaring start at the plate to his first and only All-Star appearance.

First Half 2019 Second Half 2019 + 2020
AVG .302 .229
OBP .376 .328
SLG .648 .396
wRC+ 155 90

Bell was downright phenomenal that spring, and with his high-end prospect pedigree, he appeared to be embarking on a mid-career breakout. We’re living in the golden age of player development, which means this sort of “unexpected” breakout wasn’t out of left field by any means. Bell was swinging in the zone more often, his launch angle was at a career-high, and he was combining his natural power with hitting more fly balls than ever before. Things were good.

As always, though, baseball is a game of adjustments. Suddenly, Bell wasn’t seeing as many fastballs in the middle of the plate. From 2019 to 2020 this has caused his strikeout rate to increase, his walk rate to decrease, and his hard-hit rate to decrease as well. His 2020 average exit velocity still ranked within the 87th percentile of MLB, but that also came with a career-high 56.4% ground ball rate. Here’s a quote from the man himself this past August:

“When things were going really well for me last year, I felt like I was really on the fastball,” Bell said. “As the season went on, I saw fewer fastballs and made adjustments. Those adjustments were the beginning of my downfall. I’m trying to get back to fastball timing, fastball approach, and fastball stride, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Pitchers simply weren’t respecting Bell at the start of ’19, and he hasn’t been able to adjust back quite yet. He swung and miss more than ever this past summer, which might be a sign of him pressing at the plate. The 28-year-old still walks at an above-average clip so it isn’t as if all hope for production has been lost. That natural power is still present. Bell still carries the tools to be a middle-of-the-order bat, especially with a change of scenery. Fantasy managers just shouldn’t expect a return to superstar status. Everything about his hitting profile from the past five years hints that 2019 was an outlier.

As for the “real-life” implications of this deal, it’s a worthwhile gamble for Washington. GM Mike Rizzo recently said his priority was landing a power bat for the heart of the lineup. He was able to accomplish this without giving up Carter Kieboom. The Nationals will certainly hope that the universal DH stick around this season as Bell is at -32 defensive runs saved as a first baseman since entering the league. Howie Kendrick recently retired but he could be replaced by Ryan Zimmerman, who had opted out of the shortened 2020 season. For now, there’s no reason to think that Bell won’t be a full-time player with the Nationals. He has two years remaining on his contract, and with Max Scherzer set to hit free agency in ’21, Washington is admirably making another push at a title run.

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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