The Battle Practice Secrets Behind Josh Bell’s Success at the Nationals

Through Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer

During the pre-match batting practice, Josh Bell drastically chokes on his bat and is not meant to crush homers, but just to make consistent contact, waiting as long as he can to start his swing. Between pitches during games, Bell steps out of the batter box and swings straight downseeking the feeling that he has found the best correlates with success.

His unconventional tactics work. Six weeks into the 2022 season, the Washington Nationals’ leading hitter was not superstar Juan Soto, but Bell, the hefty, strong first baseman who bats behind Soto most days. So far in 2022, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Bell has changed from power hitter to contacting machine.

Bell, 29, bats .328 and struckout in just 11% of his at bats, up 24% and down nearly 40% from his career standards. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, but he does hit it a lot. He attributes this success to the offseason work he did with Rick Eckstein, the former Nationals and Pirates batter who fired Pittsburgh last year.

Eckstein and Bell met in 2019, when Bell, then a pirate, noted a career year. Together they devised a number of exercises that drove Bell’s success.

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

“We’ve recovered,” he said. “Nice, little reunion. I’ve torn it up so far, so it was nice.”

The batting practice approach is twofold: it is relaxing and it puts Bell in the physical positions that enable his success. No, he doesn’t choke during games, but warming up with a shortened swing translates to a better swing later on. It gives the confidence that he can move the bat fast enough to at least make contact with most fields.

“It’s not what it looks like when I swing, but it’s the feeling that I’m trying to take this barrel over my cheek and attack the baseball that way from top to bottom,” he said of the latter. “If I can stay on the balls and get them in the air, the backswing will be there. A bit old-fashioned, but it works for me.”

“It’s nice not to worry about stroke training at all,” he added. “You get into an allied ball and you feel like you’re trying to make the team in the cage, in shot practice and on the field during the game. But if I can do my shot training this way and don’t care anything to do but hitting the line drives out of the infield, it makes the game a lot more fun.”

The affable Bell didn’t have much fun during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. He produced the worst season of his career, striking out more and walking less than ever before. That was 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 try to get a good start. You try instead of doing. Last year I tried to win games. We started slow.

“This year it’s like, ‘Look, I’m getting the ABs. Try not to do too much. It’s cold. Put a ball on the line. Use the barrel. If they make a mistake and I have extra time, drive that line going to turn into a homer.’ I did it.”

It’s been a year now, dating from last season. From May 17, 2021 to May 17, 2022, Bell was on par with Giancarlo Stanton as the 15th best hitter in baseball by wRC+, ahead of the likes of Rafael Devers and Mookie Betts. In terms of pure on-base percentage over that period, Bell was fifth, behind only Soto, Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

He has struck like a star.

Depending on whether the Nationals decide to split Soto, Bell could prove to be the best hitter available on the August 2 trade deadline of this year. As an imminent free agent, he is most likely available. And if he maintains this, he can earn a significant amount in the winter.

He will have earned it by successfully simplifying his game and finding the counterintuitive clues that helped him. Most of the time, he’s just trying to make contact, not launch a home run.

“The game is really hard the way it is, and I’ve just been trying to simplify things for myself, trying to stay short on baseball, not trying to put too much in the box,” Bell said. “When pitchers make mistakes, good things happen, but when I try to do damage on their best field, I don’t make a good baseball player.

“It’s nice to see the results.”

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered three seasons of the Dodgers for The Athletic and before that five seasons of the Angels and Dodgers 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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