The Batting Practice Secrets Behind Josh Bell’s Success With the Nationals

For Peter Mora
FOX Sports MLB Writer

During pregame batting practice, josh bell he chokes drastically on his bat and his goal is not to break home runs, but simply to make constant contact, waiting as long as he can to start his swing. Between pitches during games, Bell walks out of the batter’s box. box and swings downin search of the feeling you have found that best correlates with success.

His unconventional tactics are working. Six weeks into the 2022 season, the Washington Nationals’ best hitter hasn’t been superstar Juan Soto but Bell, the strong, sizable first baseman who hits behind Soto most days. So far in 2022, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Bell has transformed from a power hitter to a contact machine.

Bell, 29, is batting .328 and striking out in just 11% of his plate appearances, 24% higher and nearly 40% lower than his career norms. He doesn’t hit the ball very hard, but he hits it very often. He attributes this success to the work he did this offseason with Rick Eckstein, the former Nationals and Pirates hitting coach whom Pittsburgh fired last year.

Eckstein and Bell met in 2019, when Bell, then a Pirate, logged a career year. Together they devised a series of exercises that fueled Bell’s success.

When the Pirates traded Bell to Washington after 2020, he was no longer able to work with his preferred coach. But Eckstein’s firing in August 2021 meant that Bell frequently flew to Atlanta last winter to work with him. Even the lockout couldn’t stop them. Bell said that Eckstein was “pretty much the only guy I worked with from January onward.”

“We went back to that,” he said. “Nice little reunion. I’ve been breaking it up so far so it’s been fun.”

The batting practice approach is twofold: It’s relaxing and it gets Bell into the physical positions that allow him to be successful. No, he doesn’t choke during games, but warming up with a shorter swing translates to a better swing later. It provides confidence that he can swing the bat fast enough to at least make contact on most pitches.

“It’s not what it looks like when I swing, but it’s the feeling of trying to take this barrel to my cheek and attack the baseball up and down like that,” he said of the latter. “If I can keep up with the balls and get them in the air, the backswing is going to be there. Kind of old school, but it works for me.”

“It’s fun not worrying about batting practice at all,” he added. “You get into affiliate ball and you feel like you’re trying to be part of the team in the cage, during batting practice and on the field during the game. But if I can take my batting practice like this and I don’t mind doing anything but the batting line comes out of the infield, it makes the game a lot more fun.”

The affable Bell wasn’t having as much fun during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. He produced the worst season of his career, striking out more and walking less than ever. That held true for his first month with the Nationals last season.

“I lost the feeling, I was trying to do too much,” he said. “Sixty games, you’re trying to get off to a good start. You’re trying instead of doing. Last year, I was trying to win games. We started slow.

“This year, it’s like, ‘Look, I get the ABs. Don’t try to do too much. It’s cold. Put a ball on the line. Use the barrel. If they make a mistake and I have extension, that drive line is going to turn into a home run. It’s been working for me.”

It’s been for a year, since the last season. From May 17, 2021 to May 17, 2022, Bell was tied with Giancarlo Stanton as the 15th-best hitter in baseball according to wRC+, ahead of Rafael Devers and Mookie Betts. In terms of pure on-base percentage during that span, Bell was fifth, trailing only Soto, Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

He has hit like a star.

Depending on whether the Nationals decide to trade Soto, Bell could be the best hitter available at the trade deadline of August 2 of this year. As an impending free agent, there’s a good chance he’ll be available. And if he continues like this, he could earn a significant sum over the winter.

You will have earned it by successfully simplifying your game and locating the counterintuitive clues that have helped you. Most of the time, he’s just trying to make contact, not hit a home run.

“The game is really tough, and I’ve been trying to keep things simple for myself, trying to stay short on the ball, not trying to do too much in the box,” Bell said. “When pitchers make mistakes, good things happen, but if I’m trying to do damage on my best pitch, I’m not going to be a good baseball player.

“It’s fun to see the results.”

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, prior to that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and LA Times. He previously covered his alma mater, USC, for The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the suburbs of Southern California. His first book, “How to Beat a Broken Game,” came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.

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