It is really difficult to stick out among the Cincinnati Reds’ star-studded Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts roster. That’s because seven of the organization’s top 16 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, are currently playing out assignments there, including four of the top 10 and three of the top six. That group includes big names such as Taylor Trammell, Tyler Stephenson, Jose Siri and Tony Santillan, and still leaves off guys who aren’t listed high on Reds prospect lists. Ibandel Isabel, the record-setting power-hitting first baseman is there, as is former international signing splash (?) Alfredo Rodriguez. Simply put, the Lookouts are a team loaded with players who could have a major impact on the future of the Reds’ organization. And through 44 games, the best player on that team has been Brantley Bell.
Bell, 24, is not a big name you’ll hear mentioned in the same breath in which you’ll hear about some of the guys mentioned above — at least, not yet. He was selected in the 11th round of the 2015 draft, and after a modest 62-game showing in Billings that summer, his OPS has hovered in the .500s and .600s at every level he’s played. Even if you’re someone who has taken an interest in Reds farm teams in recent years, you’d be forgiven for never thinking about him. He wasn’t playing a premium defensive position, and aside from some decent speed — he stole 87 bases in 114 attempts in his first three pro seasons — it was difficult to find any evidence he might show any real big league tools.
In 2019, though, his production has exploded. Entering Wednesday, he was slashing .276/.369/.455, his 148 wRC+ ranking third-best in the Southern League. The Lookouts’ offense as a whole has been one of the best in their league, tying with the Jackson Generals for the most runs scored as a team this season. Many of those highly-touted prospects on the roster — Trammell, Isabel, Siri, Stephenson — have OPSes that are well above league average. Bell has been better than all of them, and the exciting news for the Reds is that it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.
First off, Bell’s numbers are not being buoyed by some kind of unsustainable BABIP luck. He’s hitting .286 on balls in play this season, an unremarkable figure in every sense, and actually slightly below his career trend. More important, though, are his plate discipline numbers.
That’s pretty much the ideal way for a chart like that to go: A steadily declining strikeout rate coinciding with a steep rise in power and walk rates. Just two years ago, Bell was striking out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances, walking 6 percent of the time, and hitting for absolutely no power. In 2019, he’s suddenly walking more than he’s striking out, and he’s one of the best power hitters in his league, ranking in the top 10 in both slugging percentage and isolated power. Among qualified hitters, his strikeout rate of 9.9 percent ranks second, and his walk rate of 10.6 percent ranks 25th. In fact, as of Tuesday, Bell was one of just three hitters at every level of Major and Minor League Baseball to claim a strikeout rate under 10 percent, and walk rate of at least 10 percent, and an isolated power number of at least .170.
Bell isn’t just a totally different hitter than he has been since he got drafted — he’s a different hitter than who the Reds drafted in the first place. During his lone season at NJCAA State College of Florida, Bell certainly hit well, posting a .325/.375/.469 line for the season. But his .144 ISO didn’t indicate much power, and while he struck out just 14.5 percent of the time, he also walked just 3 percent of the time — just a total of eight in 248 plate appearances. Those power and plate discipline numbers line up pretty well with his first four seasons as a pro, and are also similar to the numbers he posted with Ole Miss in 2014, when he hit .304/.366/.363 and struck out just 14 times in 112 plate appearances, but walked just six times, and recorded only six extra-base hits (all doubles) on the year.
Bell, then, has never indicated he could hit for power, and has consistently displayed free-swinging tendencies that helped him hit for solid contact as an amateur but have only exacerbated the disparity in his strikeout and walk rates as a pro. But now, in his fifth professional season, facing better competition than he’s ever faced, he’s morphed into something resembling 2018 Jesse Winker. That’s a rare kind of transformation, and the frustrating part is, we only have so much data to dig into. We don’t know if he’s zeroed in on a certain part of the zone, or has learned to lay off a certain pitch. There isn’t even video of him from the 2019 season on MiLB.com. What we do know is that Bell has hit more fly balls this season than ever before, and he’s gone from being a dead-pull hitter the last two seasons to shooting the ball back up the middle a bunch (data courtesy of FanGraphs).
Can we trust any of this? A month ago, the answer would have probably been, “No.” But Bell has logged 142 plate appearances now, nearly a third of what one would expect him to log over the course of a full minor league season. The more games he plays, the more difficult it is to fake numbers like these, and with six multi-hit performances in his last nine games — one of which also saw him walk twice — he only seems to be getting better. The Lookouts didn’t need another star. But it seems they’ve found one anyway.