The career of Houston Astro outfielder Derek Bell before the 1995 season had been viewed as low and away.
Low--because he had not reached the level of play expected. Away--because that is where he had been shipped by two major league teams after they predicted a brighter future without him.
Bell, 26, with his third team in three years, has been an enigma. From his start with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991 to his 1993-94 seasons with the San Diego Padres, he seemed to have all the talent in the world but did not have much to show for it.
But now, in his fifth season, his career finally is on the rise.
Bell ranks second in the National League in batting (.342), first in runs batted in (64), first in hits (106), and is among the top 10 in steals (18).
“The report on this guy has always been that he’s a hitter,” Houston hitting coach Steve Henderson said, “and he’s showing what type of hitter he can be.”
What Bell can be is one of the game’s most dangerous players. He drives the ball, has speed and the promise of youth. He was the key figure for the Astros in a 12-player trade with San Diego on Dec. 28 that sent all-star Ken Caminiti to the Padres.
Although Bell hit a career-high .311 with 14 home runs, 24 stolen bases and 54 RBIs in only 108 games last season, the Padres sent him to Houston, saying they felt the need to upgrade other areas of their team, particularly defense.
Padre General Manager Randy Smith says both sides benefited, but acknowledges Bell’s numbers are staggering.
“We knew we were giving up a talented player, but we also got a talented player in return,” Smith said. “But it is a little surprising to see Derek hitting up near .350, although I’m not surprised to see him driving in runs and stealing bases.”
One knock on Bell has been his high strikeout totals. Last season, he struck out 88 times in 108 games, after a 1993 season with 122 strikeouts in 150 games. He wasn’t making up for it in the field, leading National League center fielders with 10 errors last season.
But Bell’s move south has pushed his hitting numbers north and his strikeouts down. When Bell arrived in Houston, Henderson sat him down and persuaded him to lay off the breaking ball--low and away--his weakness in past seasons. Bell worked with Henderson and the result is an improvement of 42 strikeouts with 21 walks after 73 games this season.
“I’m a more patient hitter at the plate this year,” Bell said, “but I’m still being aggressive and going after the first good pitch I see.”
A move to right field, a position owned by Tony Gwynn in San Diego, has made him a more comfortable fielder. He has made only four errors and is tied for fourth in the NL with six outfield assists.
As his numbers increase, so does his reputation. Opposing pitchers must now recognize Bell, all-star Craig Biggio and last season’s NL most valuable player Jeff Bagwell.
“Having those guys in the lineup makes it so I don’t have to try and do too much,” said Bell, who batted fourth behind Bagwell on Tuesday and Wednesday. “It’s nice having those guys hitting around me, but they can’t hit for me. I still have to go out there and do my job.”
Some have accused him of being lazy and difficult to coach. In 1993, his trade from Toronto came about after Blue Jay Manager Cito Gaston thought Bell did not regret a throwing error and then was caught off base on a pop-up.
Henderson, who has known Bell since he played with triple-A Syracuse in the Toronto organization, laughs at talk of Bell being lazy.
“Derek played hard when he was in the minors and he plays that way now,” Henderson said.
Bell seems set in Houston, particularly if he continues to produce as he has so far. He did not make the All-Star team, but says there will be All-Star years in the near future.
There is talk of an off-season weightlifting program that would improve his power. Bell had a career-high 21 homers in 1993 but has only five in 1995 as he concentrates on hitting line drives.
“The only thing missing is the home runs and that will come when he gets more comfortable with his swing,” said Astro coach Jesse Barfield, who played with Bell in the Toronto organization.
“Those line drives he hits in the gap will turn into home runs, and when you add that to what he already has it will be incredible.”