Heath Bell’s Return To Dominance

With J.J. Putz‘s elbow hurting, the Diamondbacks have turned to Heath Bell in the closer’s role. Tuesday night against Atlanta, Heath Bell converted his fifth save in six last-inning save opportunities in impressive fashion: after the first baserunner reached on an error, Bell struck out Evan Gattis and Dan Uggla swinging before retiring Chris Johnson on a fly ball to center. Wednesday afternoon, Bell added another, as he worked another hitless and walkless inning, including a strikeout of Justin Upton.

Bell’s debut outing with Arizona looked like the beginning to another ugly season, as he allowed three runs on four hits (including two home runs) and managed just one out. Since then, Bell has been brilliant: over 18 appearances (17.2 innings), Bell hasn’t allowed a home run and has recorded 22 strikeouts against just two walks, good for a 3.06 ERA and a stunning 0.87 FIP. These two saves against Atlanta featured the drivers behind Bell’s success: impeccable fastball control, and the willing to go to it whenever he needs a strike.

In many ways, Heath Bell is a fascinating pitcher. His pitching motion is unorthodox. He’s something of a personality. And although Bell can throw his fastball for a strike at almost any time, his curveball is almost never in the zone.

Since 2007, Bell has thrown 4,476 fastballs with a 67.6 percent strike rate, nearly three points above the league average and better than roughly one in every eight big league pitchers. In 2013, and even in the fiasco of his 2012, Bell’s strike rate has climbed higher — 69.5 percent or better. His soft stuff, on the other hand, has never found the strike zone. His 59.5 percent strike rate is about three points below the league average and moving in the opposite direction. Last year, Bell threw strikes on just 51.5 percent of his 330 curveballs; this year, his strike rate has crashed below 50 percent.

The biggest difference between 2013 Bell and 2012 Bell has been the control. Bell’s two walks in his last 17.2 innings comes out to just over 1.0 BB/9, over three walks per nine innings less than last season. Given the massive gulf between his fastball control and offspeed control, the reason is intuitive: he’s sticking with the fastball more often in general, and specifically in hitters’ counts.

Bell is and has always been a fastball pitcher. He thrives on getting ahead in counts. When he was going well back in 2008 and 2009, Bell’s fastball even served as a sharp putaway pitch, as I detailed last year. His fastball’s whiff rate has declined steadily since 2010, as Brooks Baseball details here:

chart (3)

So Bell’s solution, both in 2011 and 2012, was to throw the fastball less frequently. Once his curveball control fell off the table in 2012, the strategy became untenable. Bell threw a curveball or changeup (which he had similar problems controlling) 43 percent of the time in pitchers counts in 2012 compared to 30 percent over the rest of his career. As a result, Bell lost most of those pitchers counts when the curveball missed the strike zone. He ended up with a career worst walk rate and just missed a career low strikeout rate by 0.7 percent.

This year, the fastball is back. He’s throwing it five percent more often overall and nine percent more often in pitchers’ counts. It still isn’t garnering swings and misses like it used to, but a 14.4 percent whiff per swing rate is still league average despite the decline — it’s workable, and certainly a better alternative than issuing free pass after free pass.

Additionally, Bell is throwing the fastball over 90 percent of the time on three-ball counts, by far the highest of his career. He has thrown half as many three-ball curveballs in 2013 as he did in 2012, and his walk rate has fallen similarly — 10 percent to 4 percent.

Will hitters readjust? They may have been looking for the curveball more often this year as a result of tape from 2011 and 2012, and if so, hitters could take advantage of a fastball that hasn’t shown the ability to miss bats it once had. However, Bell was dealing with mechanical issues earlier in the season, as he noted to the Arizona Republic‘s Bob McManaman after Wednesday’s save. His velocity has been trending up ever since his second appearance and has returned to the mid-90s over his last few outings. It will be worth watching if this regained velocity means the whiffs return as 2013 continues.

Kevin Towers left San Diego in 2010. Immediately afterwards, Heath Bell moved away from his bread-and-butter, strike-zone pounding fastball and moved towards his wild and inconsistent fastball. The result was two seasons suggesting his downfall from one of the game’s best closers to one of its biggest punchlines. Now, with Bell and Towers reunited, Bell’s fastball is flourishing again — and so is he.




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18 Responses to “Heath Bell’s Return To Dominance”

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  1. Angry_Saguaro says:

    Good Article…he appears to be challenging the hitters more each outing. His command of the inside corner is also getting better and better.

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  2. gouis says:

    I think Heath Bell has my leave favorite throwing motion in the majors. It’s just so ugly.

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  3. Ty Cobb says:

    I just watched Bell blow Brandon McCarthy’s great game 4 days ago. So excuse me for LOL’ing at the suggestion of a return to dominance. 2 outs, 4 hits, 2 runs and the game was tied. And now you write this…..? Seriously? Dominance?

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    • Gandalf says:

      Maybe not by Ty Cobb’s standards, but if you read the rest of the article you might understand its title.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      I was kind of thinking the same thing, he got jacked in two of his last 8 apperances, not exactly dominance. Don’t get me wrong, I like Heath Bell, he is refreshingly honest.

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      • Patrick says:

        Every pitcher is going to have bad outings. The Diamondbacks beat Mariano Rivera, one of the best closers in baseball, in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series

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      • marlins12 says:

        Honest? About what? During his time here in Florida, he came off as pretty ignorant with some of his comments.

        You should’ve heard one of his first interviews here with Dan Le Batard before he ever even threw a pitch.

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    • Adolph Hilter says:

      For real…. McCarthy gets pulled after his first excellent start of 88 pitches and 8 innings only to watch the returnly dominant Bell blow it. Bell might be better but it was return to suck two putings ago

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  4. jwise224 says:

    The velocity is definitely coming around as he hit 96 the other day. I actually had to double-take that one.

    My only grip with him is the location of some of his strikes. He’s not exactly painting the corner out there, leaving lots of pitches up in the zone. Yes they’re strikes, but they aren’t necessarily high-quality strikes. I didn’t watch him much in SD during his prime, so I can’t attest to if this is new or not.

    The guy scares the hell out of me, but he’s finding a way to get it done currently. Getting a breaking ball over for a strike once in a while would really help his cause and Jack is right on about that one.

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  5. marlins12 says:

    Is Jack Moore related to Heath Bell?

    His K/BB is very nice, but both the K and BB #’s seem unsustainable. His zone%, F-strike%, and swstrk%’s don’t indicate that he can keep that up all year.

    That great fastball discussed in the article currently has a -2.7 value on fangraphs this year.

    I’m sure things will get better with his .400+ .BABIP, but lol @ dominance.

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  6. marlins12 says:

    Also, Bell currently has the worst z-contact% of all NL relievers. Truly dominating stuff…

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  7. phoenix2042 says:

    Interesting bringing up Kevin Towers. I wonder how much control a GM really has with these things. He’s not the manager or the pitching coach. Does he (or other GMs for that matter) really micomanage to the level of telling a pitcher which pitches to use more?

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  8. Steve says:

    The only thing Bell is dominant at is downing a cheeseburger… with a shortened hand/arm motion.

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  9. bob says:

    i audibly laughed at the title.

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  10. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I like Heath Bell because he was mentored by Trevor Hoffman.

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  11. Major says:

    This is insane. In those six games, Bell has 1) thrown a wild pitch that advanced an inherited runner in to scoring position with no outs; 2) given up a leadoff double; 3) given up 1-out double with a one-run lead; 4) leadoff double, out, double, single, foul-out, PULLED, BLOWN SAVE; 5) The game mentioned here, with another leadoff baserunner; 6) one-out double with two-run lead and McCann/Upton coming up.

    That’s a rollercoaster reminiscent of the Big Potato and it sucks. He is anything but dominant. He is lucky as Hell and that is the only possible way to paint it.

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