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What happened to Josh Bell in San Diego?

The slugger was anything but during his time with the Padres. Did he just become bad? (Hint: no)

National League Wild Card Series: San Diego Padres v. New York Mets Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Nearly a week on, it’s still hard to believe that the Guardians actually went out and filled a gap in the team in free agency. With a bat no less, and not something out of the bargain bin!

Josh Bell is a far cry from the Mark Reynoldses and Casey Kotchmans that filled out first base a decade ago, and better even than Mike Napoli’s incredible half a season. We’re talking about a guy who can hit 35 or so dingers, work a walk, make contact, and do all those other good-hitter things that were lacking last year. He’s always been pretty good, is certainly already one of the best hitters in the lineup, and will help to make guys like Josh Naylor better because of his relative versatility in switch-hitting. It’s all pretty cool. But there is one big, glaring question in the wake of his 2022 campaign.

What the hell happened in San Diego?

When the Padres made that blockbuster trade to get Juan Soto, it felt almost unfair that they were getting Bell as seemingly a throw-in. At that point, Bell was hitting .301/.384/.493 with 38 extra-base hits and was only making an already potent San Diego lineup that much more lethal. Then, over 53 games and 210 plate appearances, he put up a .192/.316/.271 line and hit just eight extra-base hits over that span. Simply put, he was a black hole on offense, one of the worst hitters in the second half. It’s fair to take into account his whole career, but this is at least a little troubling, especially for the typically paranoid Cleveland fan who’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Bell has always been a good, though not incredible, hitter. Highly touted before he hit the majors in Pittsburgh, his 116 OPS+ that he logged there would be quite welcome in Cleveland, and that’s dragged down by the COVID year. In 1005 plate appearances in Washington he posted a 136 OPS+, hitting for more power and a better average than he ever did in Pittsburgh. Whether it was because he had some kind of protection in the lineup with Soto and Kyle Schwarber for a bit, and one or two other decent hitters might be the case, but we’re also talking about a guy just hitting his prime as a corner infield slugger. This is something like what the Padres thought they were getting. Instead …

One thing to immediately consider is where he’s playing. San Diego is famously a hard place to hit, and that division has Dodger Stadium - facing insane pitching and it’s a big place - and the oceanic AT&T Park in San Francisco that helps to suppress offense. Coors Field and whatever the hell it's called in Arizona are more offensively generous, but Bell played only five of his games as a Padre in those two stadiums.

It’s hard to glean a lot from the comparatively small sample size that we got from Bell in San Diego. He was otherworldly in Washington, then did he just get body snatched and replaced by some sort of poor-hitting alien being? Well, here’s how it all breaks down:


Team OPS+ BB% K% Exit Velo(mph) Hard Hit% GB% LD% BABIP
Team OPS+ BB% K% Exit Velo(mph) Hard Hit% GB% LD% BABIP
Washington 153 11.2 14.0 89.7 40.6 47.2 26.3 .324
San DIego 75 15.2 19.5 87.5 41.2 58.1 19.1 .233
Career 120 11.9 18.2 90.6 44.7 50.5 22.7 .288
Josh Bell 2022 splits by team

In essence, he was doing some good things in Washington — line drive rate chief among them — but a lot of interesting stuff was happening in San Diego, too. His BABIP cratered, but his walk rate was about a career-best. Moreover, according to Baseball Savant, Petco Park would be a rough stadium for Bell over his career. It would have robbed him of two home runs in 2019 and another four in 2021. It’s also just a tough place to hit for pull hitters, and the way fly balls die there is misery. Worse than that, San Francisco is a net negative 20 in expected homers over his career. He didn’t play there a lot during his time in San Diego, but that has to loom a little large.

It’s hard, and a little frustrating, to just say it was a bad environment and a bit of bad luck for Bell. Sometimes that’s how it is though. Maybe it was a comfort issue, maybe he felt some kind of added pressure because San Diego has to be a giant killer just to make the playoffs — or even have any sense of legitimacy and meaning for even existing — but for most of 2022 he was about what he’s always been, with a little extra luck thrown in. he’s going to hit the ball hard, more on the ground than you’d like, work some walks, and hit 30ish dingers. He’s not a superstar, but he’s immediately a top-four hitter on the Guardians. It’s what they needed, and as long as he doesn’t bring that bad juju over, he should find great success in Cleveland.