Former Pirate Bell brings unusual approach to hitting coach role


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- The terminology used to describe baseball often includes words like "battle" and "grind." Pirates manager Clint Hurdle refers to players "punching back" after the league has exploited a weakness.

Part of Jay Bell's approach to hitting balances the scales a bit.

"I relate baseball, whether it's offensively or defensively, to a waltz," said Bell, in his first spring training as the Pirates' hitting coach. "It's not a rave party. It's a waltz. It's smooth, it's elegant."

The Pirates offense was neither smooth nor elegant at times last season, the final year of Gregg Ritchie's tenure as hitting coach. Bell, familiar with the North Shore after playing for the Pirates for eight of his 18 major league seasons, takes over an offense full of both promise and questions.

"If you're a 40-man roster guy, you're a big league player, you've pretty much figured out a lot of things mechanically to do," Bell said. "Now it's just a matter of mastering the mental aspect of our game. A lot of times, that's the most difficult part of it, how to control ourselves mentally during the course of a game that starts speeding up on you."

As a two-time All-Star in a career with the Pirates, Cleveland Indians, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals and New York Mets, Bell displayed the ability to translate the mechanics into success. He hit .310 in 1993 with the Pirates, earning a spot in the All-Star Game and a Silver Slugger award. In 1999 with the Diamondbacks, he hit .289 with 38 home runs, and he had a career .343 on-base percentage.

"He's got street cred," Hurdle said. "You flip over the back of the ball card, that's a buy-in as well for some players. They'll look at that and go, 'Wow, OK.' He's got their ear immediately."

Bell retired after the 2003 season and went to work for the Diamondbacks organization, most recently as the hitting coach of Class AA Mobile. In October, after agreeing to work with New Zealand's entry into the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament, he got a phone call from Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson and general manager Kevin Towers.

"They said, Pittsburgh, they asked for permission to talk to you about their vacant hitting [coach's] job," Bell said. "Would you be interested? I said absolutely."

That was Monday. Hurdle wanted Bell to interview Thursday, but Bell was leaving for the WBC. So he flew to Pittsburgh and met with Hurdle, general manager Neal Huntington and assistant general manager Kyle Stark for 3 1/2 hours at the airport. He flew back to Arizona, then left for New Zealand. A couple days later, Hurdle informed Bell that he was the Pirates' choice.

"Clint's a great leader," Bell said. "He's easy to work for, enjoyable to work for. He requires a lot out of his coaches. He also lets us do our job, which is phenomenal."

Bell works in concert with Jeff Branson, who serves as the assistant hitting coach, and said the tandem works. Branson, in his 12th season with the Pirates organization, can bring Bell up to speed on the players in the system, and their different backgrounds help them reach hitters of all roles.

"He was a role player, and I was an everyday player," Bell said. "So we're seeking the same objective, we're just coming at it from different angles. We get to share with the guys the difficulties that he had to deal with and the difficulties that I had to deal with."

As a Class AA hitting coach, Bell needed to work on mechanics with the younger players. At the major league level, he focuses on the mental approach in a calm, collected fashion. Hitting is a violent act, he said, but the thought process governing it is not, hence the waltz metaphor.

"You want to make sure that we control it," he said. "As everything starts getting crazy around us, we want to make sure that internally, we're taking that 'one-two-three, one-two-three' thought process into the game. If you can control your mind, you can control your body."

Hurdle credited Bell with establishing "non-negotiables," tenets of hitting which every player must buy into. But Bell remains flexible.

"He doesn't have a style," Jordy Mercer said. "That's what makes him unique from other hitting coaches. He already told us that everybody has their own style of hitting. It all comes down to the same, getting ready on time and attacking the baseball."

As long as they attack with graceful intentions.

Burnett pitches into fifth

A.J. Burnett extended himself in his third start of the spring, pitching 4 2/3 innings in the Pirates' 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins Saturday at McKechnie Field. Burnett allowed two runs on two hits, walked two and struck out three. He had not pitched more than two innings in either of his previous two starts.

"This was obviously a lot sharper than my past two, and I expect the next one to be sharper," Burnett said. "I love competing out there. Each time you get out there, you can be more comfortable."

Burnett threw his curveball on the first pitch and to left-handed batters Saturday. Previously this spring, he threw it only when ahead in the count. He also picked a batter off first base, another example of the club's commitment to controlling runners.

"We're very monotonous about it," he said. "We go over it every day."

Buried treasure

Russell Martin (shoulder) is scheduled to catch today against the Baltimore Orioles.

mobilehome - pirates

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published March 10, 2013 5:00 AM


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