Young proud of Bell’s development

Josh Bell had a terrific season for the Pirates, finally giving the club the everyday first baseman it sought for so many years.

Among the people who are very proud of Bell’s development at first base is the last guy who held that everyday job for a long time with the Bucs, Kevin Young.

“He wants to be in the lineup every day, which says a lot about his character, and the fact that he’s a switch hitter, he’ll be able to do that,” Young said during a visit to Altoona on Thursday, when he was the featured speaker at the Curve Booster Club’s annual dinner.

Bell surprised everyone with his power this year, belting 26 homers with 90 RBIs while batting .255 in 159 games. Everyone knew he could hit, and while power was expected to come at some point, no one could have foreseen him smacking that many homers in his first full major league season.

The big question mark with Bell, though, was his defense. When he first made the move from the outfield to first base with the Curve in 2015, his defense that first month was, frankly, terrible.

He looked lost over there.

One scout told me that summer that Bell would never be a reliable everyday first baseman in the big leagues.

But Bell showed noticeable improvement defensively at first the second half of that season with the Curve, then got a little better last year at Triple-A Indianapolis.

He wasn’t a Gold-Glove candidate by any stretch this year with the Pirates, but he was plenty serviceable. He made 10 errors and, as the season went on, looked better and better on balls to both sides, footwork and overall understanding of the position.

Young, a special assistant to the GM with the Bucs who makes frequent stops in Altoona throughout the Curve season, has worked extensively with Bell the past couple of years to help him make strides at first. Many others have, as well, and all the work appears to be paying off.

“I give him all the credit,” Young said of Bell. “So many people in our organization — Gary Green, Joey Cora, (Tom) Prince, a lot of staff and managers he’s had — have really poured into Josh and believed in him. At the end of the day, when you have that much support and you have the work ethic that he has, it’s hard not to be successful.”

Young had a successful big league career, playing 12 seasons and hitting .258 with 144 homers and 606 RBIs. He had two stints with the Pirates (1992-95, 1997-03) and was the club’s everyday first baseman for most of his tenure).

His best years were 1998 (27 homers, 108 RBIs) and 1999 (26 homers, 106 RBIs) for the Bucs. He retired following the 2003 season.

Young credits Bell’s work ethic and desire to get better defensively. He told the crowd Thursday night about the misconception that moving from the outfield to first base is easy, noting there’s a lot more to the position than just catching balls from infielders.

All fielders have to go through a mental checklist about what they’ll be doing prior to each pitch, and Young said that, by far, a first baseman has the most things to think about when it comes to being fully prepared for anything that might happen.

As Bell plays first base more, his instincts will get even better. Young said it probably will take about two more years before we see Bell truly understand everything he needs to understand and feel fully comfortable at first.

“More than anything, being able to have a full first season at the major league level playing first base, he got to see all the different type of looks that he’ll have to deal with, whether it be bunt defense, cutoffs, relays,” Young said.

“So now he gets to grow off of it and use his own intellect and make some decisions. A little more definitive positioning for him, decision-making process, all those things he gets to start doing a little bit more.”

Bell showed an impressive bat and great plate discipline but little power when he was with the Curve, hitting just five homers in 120 games over two seasons. His minor league high in homers was 14 in 2016 at Triple-A, then he exploded for 26 a year ago in the majors.

How did that happen?

“I think the consistency of what you see,” Bell said. “Once you get to the major league level, you do have better pitching with better stuff, but they also have to find the zone. You have a little bit more consistent strike zones to work with, so you have more pitches that you can put into play.

“With the amount of strength that he has to all fields, one of the things you were able to see is the power numbers jump. Now he’s able to drive the ball out over the plate to the opposite field. He can pull the baseball, he can hit it straightaway center. When you have the ability and that much strength to drive baseballs out of the ballpark any direction and a plate to work off of, he’s taken ownership of that plate.”

Bell has a chance to be a superstar for the Bucs, on and off the field (the latter because of his extremely likable personality). He will have to repeat the power numbers and hit for a higher average, and he’s capable of doing both.

He also has to keep improving at first base, and given the strides he’s made the past two years, one should expect that to happen.

He is such a vital part of the Pirates’ future, not just because of his abilities, but because he can handle first base every day so that there’s no longer a need to platoon guys there.

“You get use your resources at other positions because you know that you have something reliable as a run producer in that position on a consistent basis,” Young said. “Having somebody that can drive the ball out of the ballpark in the lineup every single day at first base will go a long way for us.

“He’s going to continue to do that at the major league level now, and hopefully he’ll be in a Pirate uniform for a long time.”

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.