No team hates hitting for power more than the Cleveland Guardians.
Scotty, the Guardians Need More Power
A roughly league-average offense overall, the Guards were near the bottom in home runs and ISO – and the absolute bottom among a damn-worthy offense. You would hope that such a team would be particularly good at putting the ball in, and you would be right; Cleveland had the highest team contact rate and lowest batting rate in baseball. José Ramírez has been a Guardians franchise player for several years, and by 2022 the team was basically built around his image: short guys with high contact rates.
Three Cleveland hitters – Ramírez, Steven Kwan, and Myles Straw – were in the top 13 for strike rates among qualified batsmen and were among the 21 hardest to hit. The team leader in the strikes was Andrés Giménez, a 1.75-foot midfielder who shot 0.297 with a pitch of just 20.1%. For comparison, the Braves, who won 101 games and made the third most rounds in baseball, had nine batsmen who played 300 or more games last year; each had a higher hit rate than Giménez.
This is the last baseball team you’d expect to invest big bucks in a 260-pound first baseman with a 37-homer season in the recent past, especially given the franchise’s famed frugality. After all, Cleveland ran a payroll of just $69 million last year. But Josh Bell isn’t your garden variety, big guy. If it were, the Guardians wouldn’t have signed him to a two-year, $33 million contract. As Jon Heyman reported on Tuesday afternoon.
The bell is built like a church bell: big, wide and solid. And like a church bell, it also makes loud contact, but only intermittently. Now, if you think that analogy is painful, take a bunch of Bell’s numbers after he was traded to the Padres on a deadline this summer. In order not to overpaint this post, they are here against their numbers in Washington in 2022 and in each of the three previous seasons.
Josh Bell’s Inconsistency Over the Years
|PA||average||OBP||SLG||wRC+||%K||%BB||Hard Hit %||GB/FB||To shake%|
|2022 (with SDP)||210||.192||.316||.271||75||15.2||19.5||40.9||2.00||41.4|
|2022 (with WSN)||437||.301||.384||.493||143||11.2||14.0||40.4||1.49||47.5|
Here are the constants of Bell’s career: He is a patient hitter with a good grasp of the strike zone and excellent contact skills. Except for the 2020 season shortened due to the pandemic, it never walked less than 10% of its license plate views and hit more than 20% of the time. That season was also the only season in which he made contact in less than three-quarters of his strokes. When he makes frequent contact, he usually hits the ball hard. Maybe not as tough as you’d expect from a guy looking like he could ride a tugboat, but overall it’s above average with the occasional 110 mph outlier. His touch and plate discipline numbers set him apart from most other free agents on the meaty end of the defensive spectrum, and by those metrics he’ll feel right at home with the smack-down Guardians.
Other parts of Bell’s play are less coherent. There have been three different Bells in the last four seasons: Someone who lifts the ball and hits it like a downvoted MVP contender, someone who knocks the ball down and hits it like a backup, for at least part of the time. an intermediate version that catches and doesn’t raise the ball but hits that hard and still puts in acceptable numbers.
We saw the first Bell in 2019 and the first half of ’22, the second in ’20 and the second half of ’22 and the third in ’21. Let’s look at both ends. The best version of Bell combines strength, patience and contact in a style few hitters can copy. If he could guarantee this kind of production, it would obviously not be suitable for a team like the Guardians. Rather than being part of the mixed middle class of primary/non-DH agents, it would be no. 1 in this position ahead of José Abreu and Anthony Rizzo. And considering that he’s just turned 30 and is a little younger than either of them, he would command a four or five-year contract in the $20 million a year range – maybe more.
However, the disadvantage is too great to ignore. Especially since the latest iteration of the Bell we’ve seen is not only happy with the ball, but also passive on the plate. Hence a lucrative but relatively short-term contract with a roll-off after the first year. Slightly heavier than the $39 million three-year deal our readers predicted, and nearly double the $18 million two-year deal Ben Clemens is proposing to take. Even with the caveat that the first few rounds of free agent activity had more cash jumps than we anticipated, that’s a hefty price point.
And do you know? Understood. When Bell is good, she like this well, and that not only makes him unusual in this free agent class, but perhaps in a style that is uniquely suited to Cleveland’s offensive playstyle. The guards desperately need a DH who can hit for power and can’t or don’t want to shop in the expensive aisles of the market. Of course it’s a risk, but it’s not stupid. The Bell the Guardians are trying to revive is not a fading memory like MVP-quality Cody Bellinger, for example; he’s been right here for the past six months, taking walks and smashing dingers. If that Bell reappears, this contract will look like a bargain, despite its surprisingly high price.