Heath Bell – Maybe This Year

I’ll admit, I’m a Heath Bell protagonist. Last year I expected big things from the 28 year old reliever who ended up posting a 5.11 ERA in just 22 relief appearances. He didn’t quite live up to my lofty expectations:

“Don’t be surprised if he becomes an important piece of the Mets bullpen next season.”

Well Heath, it’s a new year and you have a brand new team (Padres) with new fans to impress. Let’s see where things went wrong last year and if they’re going to happen again this year.

He has pretty much everything you’re looking for in a relief pitcher: high strikeout rate, low walk rate, and he’s even a ground ball pitcher. He’s clearly mastered Triple-A where in 2006 his K/9 was over 14! Not to mention he posted an ERA of 1.29 in 35 innings.


Yet what plagues him in the majors has been his extraordinarily high batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The past two years his BABIP has been .374 in 2005 and an insanely high .394 in 2006, which just happened to be the highest in the majors for pitchers with over 30 innings pitched. This same problem plagued him last year in AAA too, where he had a .378 BABIP, the 11th highest at the AAA level.


Typically with BABIP this high, you’d think he was just getting unlucky, but it’s hard to ignore the past two years worth of data, so despite his incredible peripherals, maybe this is just who he is?

It’s clear the Mets, at least at the major league level, never had a whole lot of confidence in him. Of the regular relievers he was used in the least important situations possible. His average Leverage Index (LI) was a measly 0.35, with a Leverage Index of 1 being an average situation (the higher the leverage, the more important the situation). The previous year was not much different where his LI was 0.65, the third lowest on the team.

His 2006 ERA of 5.11 is mainly the result of 3 games which were completely out of hand before he even entered the game.

– On 9/26 he entered the game with the Mets trailing by 6 runs and gave up another 6 runs.

– On 9/11 he entered the game with the Mets trailing by 6 runs and gave up 5 additional runs.

– On 7/2 he entered the game with the Mets trailing by 3 runs and gave up 4 runs and an additional 4 unearned runs.

So, if we take away these three horrible (meaningless) outings, his ERA ends up being 1.76. Maybe you have questions whether or not the game on 7/2 was completely meaningless. If we leave that one in, his ERA is still a pretty nice 2.72.

Heath Bell is getting a fresh start this year and despite his historically awful BABIP, his strikeout and walk rates are just too good to ignore. I’ll stick with my same prediction as last year: I’d be surprised if Heath Bell didn’t become an important fixture in the Padres bullpen.

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David Appelman is the creator of FanGraphs.