Where Are Heath Bell’s Whiffs?

Heath Bell was just one strike away from getting the second out in the ninth Thursday in New York. Bell was in just another jam, the fourth time in seven outings this season at least three baserunners reached against him. But with Justin Turner at the plate — a lifetime .248/.325/.336 hitter — Bell jumped out to an 0-2 count. There was his way out.

And then Turner fouled off a couple pitches. And then a couple more. And the next thing we knew, it was a full count. And then he fouled off four more pitches. Finally, on the 13th pitch of the at-bat, Turner took ball four on a pitch down and out of the zone. The Mets had the game tied and would eventually win it on Kirk Niewenhuis’s long single to right field as the rain poured on Citi Field.

It’s been about as rough a season as anybody could imagine for the 34-year-old closer. In just 5.2 innings, Bell has allowed eight runs (six earned), walked seven batters, and allowed nine hits. Pretty much every rate imaginable to measure his pitching is unfortunate at this point, but the most distressing? Perhaps a 4.9% swinging strike rate, a big part of the reason Bell couldn’t get out of the ninth Thursday at Citi Field. It used to be Bell could take a hitter like Justin Turner and blow him away. Not so throughout 2012 thus far.

The decline of Bell’s swinging strike rate began last year, as it fell from 10.6% in 2011 (10.1% in 2010 as well) to 8.3%. The accompanying 7.3 K/9 had many concerned about his ability to consistently get outs in the ninth inning, particularly as the Marlins offered him a contract that would take him through age 37 before its expiration. Back in 2008 and 2009, Bell in particular was able to blow the high fastball right past right-handed hitters:

This heatmap (as well as those that follow) shows Bell’s whiff rates versus right-handers with his fastball on a per-swing basis. The number in each zone represents the number of pitches in that zone. Although Bell isn’t and never was the kind of elite swing-and-miss guy that a Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Jonny Venters or other relief aces have been, Bell was still more than passable. The high fastball, as mentioned above, was the out pitch: his high-and-inside pitches yielded misses on nearly 40% of swings.

Unfortunately, these pitches haven’t been nearly as reliable for Bell since 2011:

As a whole, this heatmap is much “cooler” than the one from his prior two seasons. The high pitches aren’t nearly as menacing, although he has drawn a few more whiffs on pitches in the middle of the zone, hitters still make contact with them on roughly 80% of their swings — and many small samples abound as well. Let’s take a look at where the pitches Justin Turner fouled off came:

All but one of these pitches was a fastball — the only exception the one closest to the zone’s center, which was a curveball — hence the choice to look at just his fastball whiff rates. Bell couldn’t get strikes on the two relatively high-and-inside pitches he went for, and after that it’s not terribly surprising he wasn’t able to get Turner to whiff on pitches hovering around the middle of the plate. Turner may not be a great hitter, but he owns a very sharp 88.6% contact rate, so pitchers can’t rely on him to swing through any old pitch.

Perhaps the rain was a factor here, and with the runner on third Bell was concerned about uncorking a high fastball that would get past his catcher and score the tying run that way, but it was surprising to see Bell stay so low in the zone — remember, only the last three of these fouls came on a full count. But considering he’s already seen for the last few years that his old bread-and-butter strikeout fastball just hasn’t been that, perhaps it isn’t so surprising, particularly with the bases loaded and the tying run on third base.

Bell has plenty of other problems to work out right now besides his ability to draw whiffs — his ability to consistently throw strikes must be up there with an 11.1 BB/9 so far. But on Thursday afternoon, what Bell needed was to get Justin Turner to swing and miss at one of 11 pitches, and he failed — a disconcerting prospect for the Marlins and their $27 million dollar closer.

Pitch F/X data courtesy Brooks Baseball

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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