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Heath Bell Takes Another Step Forward

Nobody should be particularly surprised that Heath Bell is having another excellent season as the Padres closer. This is Bell’s fourth year as a Padres reliever, and in his worst year prior to 2010 Bell posted a 3.58 ERA and a 3.34 FIP. The other two seasons were nothing short of excellent: 2.02 ERA, 2.50 FIP, 2.4 WAR in 2007 and a 2.71 ERA, 2.42 FIP, 2.0 WAR season in 2009.

Bell, as most ace relievers do, thrives on the strikeout. In his time with the Padres, only his relatively weak 2008 campaign saw a strikeout rate lower than one per inning. 2009 saw a climb above 10 K/9 for the first time in his career. It’s not terribly surprising that Bell has good strikeout numbers – mixing a 94 MPH average fastball with an 81 MPH curveball is bound to induce plenty of swings and misses, and Bell has that in a 10.0% swinging strike rate.

This year has seen another increase in strikeouts for Bell, as the hefty closer’s K/9 rate has risen to 11.6. The uptick in strikeouts is accompanied by an expected rise in swinging strike rate. Bell has gone to the curveball a career high 30% of the time this year. Due to the much higher swinging strike rates on breaking pitches, the rise in swinging strikes and strikeouts in general is unsurprising. The side effect of that, however, has been a decrease in pitches in the strike zone, and with pitches out of the zone come more walks. Bell’s 3.5 BB/9 rate is certainly acceptable for a reliever who can whiff such a high amount of batters, but it also marks a career high.

Despite the career high in walk rate, Bell’s FIP of 1.95 (along with an ERA of 1.84) is easily a career low, mainly because Bell has only allowed one home run in his 53.2 innings of pitching and the 48 fly balls he’s allowed.¬†Bell’s 2.1% HR/FB ratio obviously can’t be sustained, but it’s not as if we should expect Bell to come crashing down to earth or anything. Bell gets a decent, but not great, amount of ground balls – 45%. More importantly, though, Bell has shown an ability, like some elite relievers, to maintain low HR/FB rates. Not that Bell can maintain anything like he’s done this year, but from 2007-2009 Bell has posted HR/FB rates of 6.0%, 6.8%, and 5.1%, respectively. Although the three years¬†still only covers 240 innings due to the nature of relieving, that’s enough evidence to at least suggest that Bell’s HR/FB rate should stay below the league average of just under 10%.

Before the season, all the talk with Heath Bell was how long it would take for him to end up in the uniform of some contending team. With August coming to a close all the talk is of Bell’s fantastic performance and the performance of the Padres. Bell continues to establish himself as an elite closer, and now, it looks he will get to do it as a Padre in October.