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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20 Responses to “Where Are Heath Bell’s Whiffs?”

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  1. Greg says:

    Not to nitpick, but Bell wasn’t “one strike away from the save”. He only got to 2 outs when Hairston grounded out and then Kirk stepped up; he took a ball and then ripped a ball over Stanton’s head. In other words, he never had 2 strikes against with 2 outs. He got Turner and Hairston into 2-strike holes in the prior plate appearances but both were with 1 out.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      That jumped out at me as well. They tied the game with 1 out, so he was never 1 strike away from the save.

      As to the main point, he clearly took a step backwards last year and it seems to be continuing. It’s tough to give up on him because he was very good for several years, but the contract didn’t look so great in the off-season and it’s looking much worse now.

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    • Jack Moore says:

      Of course… I watched that whole inning, too. Fixed.

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  2. JoeC says:

    And this is the difference between good clubs and bad clubs: good clubs acquire players who aren’t in imminent danger of declining to irrelevancy (Philadelphia picking up Broxton, even the Reds picking up Madson with the injury just being bad luck). Bad clubs make overpriced acquisitions like Miami did with Bell.

    He’s garbage. They’ll keep trotting him out there in order to justify their contract, but he’s done-zo. Stick some tongs in him and call him macaroni.

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    • JoeC says:

      Bah… Philadelphia picking up PAPELBON, not Broxton. Don’t know where my brain got that one from (but speaking of bad teams making bad acquisitions…).

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    • LTG says:

      JoeC,

      You should expect someone from Philadelphia to tell you that the Papelbon signing was not a good move. To wit, sinking that much money into a closer might cost them the ability to resign Hamels; no closer is worth that much money; etc.

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    • Adam says:

      This is a joke post right? Have you seen how much money the Phillies gave to Ryan Howard? That’s one of the most obviously bad contracts in recent history; give me a break.

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  3. bpdelia says:

    Yeah but his point is fair. The lee and doc deals are at worst on the low end of fair. The bell signing was silly. It was the kind of signing that reeked of an owner interfering. I just can’t buy that bell had any offer remotely approaching that one

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  4. idiot GM says:

    let me tell you. anyone that watches baseball 24 hours a day can tell you something bad before it happens…

    this has been the case for jwerth, b zito, crawford, pujols, lackey and now h. bell

    i know for a fact that the above guys were going to slump and play dead.
    j werth was pressing last year and maybe pujols is pressing too, but lackey was the clear red flag sign. h bell is too. the guy is a baboon on the mound.

    watch baseball long enough and you will outsmart the GMs.

    papelbon is on the decline, but he clearly is better than guerra, h bell, francisco, or broxton.

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    • WinTwins says:

      Some major league team should give this prescient wonder a job!

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    • Baltar says:

      Give us a list of your predictions now, genius. Let’s see how they turn out.

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    • bpdelia says:

      Baj. Yankees fan here and I agree on zito and werh but NO ONE predicted crawford would be a disaster. Overpaid? Yes. His war would come down when fenway hurt his uzr? Yeah. But NOBODY knew he was going to be a useless player for the first year and a half of the deal. Ditto lackey. Over paid injury risk? Yeah. Worst starter in baseball? NFW. It was reasonable to expect lackey to be am, over paid solid #3 type or be hurt. It was not reasonable to expect him to be basically the worst pitcher in baseball.

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  5. Paul Wilson says:

    Even Jim Bowden reads fangraphs.

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  6. Luke G says:

    Simple answer – he left them back in 2010. Anyone who wasn’t a Marlin could see his velocity and peripherals were on the decline throughout 2011, so this isn’t a surprise.

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    • This Sentence Hurt My Head says:

      But that doesn’t jive with the data under Pitch Type. It says he hit his career peak of 94.0 avg. in both 2010-2011. So far this year he’s at 93.3, which is within noise of the normal 0.5 mph dropoff the league sees during April.

      I keep hearing that Bell is having velocity issues, but it doesn’t seem to show up in the numbers.

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  7. Paul Merlo says:

    Signing a declining (yet proven) closer to a juicy contract – this is not going to end well.

    PM crpgdetlvng apregpostid506573350011

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  8. This Sentence Hurt My Head says:

    “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%. ”

    You are writing this sometime in 2013, judging by this sentence. So you must know how things ended up working out for Bell in 2012. Are you just gonna keep us in suspense? For a bonus I wouldn’t mind hearing how the November presidential election went too. Thanks!

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