Can Heath Bell Be Trusted?

You’d have been hard-pressed this offseason to find an unbiased observer who didn’t think that the three-year, $27 million contract that the Marlins handed to closer Heath Bell was foolish. (In fact, look no further than our own Paul Swydan’s review in December.) Yet while few liked the idea of giving such a large contract to a declining closer on a team which had more pressing needs, nobody could have foreseen just how disastrous Bell’s Miami debut would be. After blowing four saves in his first eleven appearances with the Marlins, Bell was bounced from his job in early May, and it was no fluke; after melting down on May 4 against his old San Diego teammates, Bell had struck out just six in 8.2 innings while allowing 25 baserunners and 11 earned runs.

Bell’s demotion lasted only about a week, as Steve Cishek & Edward Mujica handled the late-inning duties for the club until Bell returned to the role on  May 11. Since then, Bell has seen better results, saving four and winning two in seven outings. That’s miles ahead of his performance in April, and considering his reputation & contract this turnaround ought to be enough to solidify his hold on the closer’s job for the foreseeable future. Fantasy players have noticed, since he’s among the most-added relievers this week after many had cut bait on him earlier this month.

Yet while that all seems nice on the surface… it’s hard to say that he’s “back”, isn’t it?

Even heading into the season, the huge drop in strikeout rate from 11.1/9 in 2010 to 7.3/9 in 2011 was a concern, and it’s continuing to head in the wrong direction in 2012, down to 5.5 so far. The problem was severe enough that Jack Moore looked at it in depth at the end of April, and it hasn’t gotten any better since; even during his “comeback”, Bell has struck out only three of the 26 batters he’s faced over his last seven games entering Thursday.

That’s no way to nail down games, and it’s hard to think that it’s a sustainable path to success if nothing changes. Bell’s velocity doesn’t seem to be the concern, since it’s down only very slightly from last year, but basically everything else has been. Early on, he was getting killed by walks – 10 in his first 8.2 innings – and while he’s improved his control enough that he’s limited the free passes since, simply being able to get the ball over the plate isn’t the same thing as being able to put the ball in the right spot to fool hitters.

Just look at his plate discipline statistics. When Bell puts the ball in the strike zone, hitters are making contact at a 95.2% rate, one of the highest in baseball. When he misses, batters are generally laying off, swinging at just 23.7% of pitches outside the strike zone, which would be by far the lowest of his closing career. He’s blowing no one away when he challenges hitters, and getting few to chase the bad pitches that all pitchers need.

It’s not a good trend, and while he certainly still be an effective reliever, it’s hard to think that he’s going to reclaim his elite status, especially since he’ll be 35 in September and we started seeing the signs of decline before he even made it to Miami. If anything, this recent “hot” streak he’s been on could be the greatest value he provides all year, because if he can get his ERA down to a reasonable number while collecting some saves, his name value could provide for a great sell-high situation. As I always say, saves can always be found. If you can move an older reliever showing severe signs of wear for help at other positions, then by all means, do so. You can always make up the saves Bell will provide elsewhere, and rid yourself of the worry that the Bell we saw in April will rear his head again.


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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

7 Responses to “Can Heath Bell Be Trusted?”

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  1. novaether says:

    The question is, are the 95.2% contact rate and 23.7% O-swing rate going to change? Is his fastball suddenly much flatter? Did he change his delivery so that he’s easier to pick up? He’s a reliever with very few innings pitched so far, so it’s very easy to say that these numbers simply haven’t stabilized yet. Has anybody done research to determine how many IP or BF you need before these numbers stabilize?

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  2. Mike Petriello says:

    Yikes. Another terrible outing for him today. Sure hope you sold when you had the chance.

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  3. Mark W says:

    Finally an article that doesn’t rely on the mythical “velocity decrease” that Bell has supposedly experienced – which PitchFX has been unable to notice. Now we just have to figure out the real reason he’s getting hit so much.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      Is the velocity thing something you’re seeing a lot? I really don’t get that argument.

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  4. Billy G says:

    He’s been looking a little better these past few days. Any chance he’s finding his grove now?

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  5. cwech says:

    Can saves really always be found? This year with all it’s bullpen upheavals has convinced me all the more that saves are in fact quite hard to find. Let’s look at my NL league. The first place team in saves paid $21 for Rafael Betancourt’s 9 saves, and held over Hanrahan and Marshall as keepers at the $1 they acquired them for 3 years ago. In addition they paid $6 for Cashner’s 0 saves. So while they have cheap saves, 2 of their 3 closers weren’t on the market at all this year, and one they paid quite a bit for.

    Second place in our league in saves has Kimbrel at $14 as a second year keeper, who I engaged in a bidding war for before giving up given that at the time Atlanta said Kimbrel and Venters were going to split save chances. Kimbrel thus, while pretty cheap, wasn’t on the market at all this year. He also has Putz for $15 from last year in spite of Putz long injury history, Putz also wasn’t available at the draft.

    Third in saves is me, I paid $27 for Bell last year and kept him. Even though he’s been horrible he has 10 saves for me. Then I got lucky, acquiring Myers in a trade late last season for $1 when he was still a starter. Additionally, I paid $8 for Francisco Rodriguez who has one save but really hasn’t sniffed save opportunities. I managed to grab your “saves that can always be found” by snatching up the terrible Rafael Dolis after his first save, and got his next 3, while eating his abysmal WHIP and ERA.

    At the bottom of the league we have two teams that haven’t yet found a save, and a team that has nabbed up nearly every next in line closer on the market once a crisis has emerged. That’s earned them 4 saves after gambling on Salas-$1, Lidge-$1 as a keeper, and Venters-$11, and acquiring Cishek, Russell, and Sean Burnett in mid season to try to find saves. All that effort has earned them 4, mostly from Lidge.

    Looks to me like a league where 2 things have worked, acquiring closers from previous seasons when they weren’t valued as closers and keeping them, and paying for saves. Even paying for bad closers has paid off in the saves category where someone as horrible as Bell has still earned his owner 10 saves. I read on rotographs all the time about how you shouldn’t pay for saves and saves can always be found, but it really looks to me like saves are in fact, quite scarce. I’m sure this varies from league to league, and maybe they can always be found in deeper mixed leagues, but at least in a 12 team NL only, it looks to me like you better pay for saves or be ready to finish last in that category, because saves are extremely difficult to find.

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    • cwech says:

      Futhermore, there’s a consistent pattern that acquiring good setup men appears to cost between $6 and $14, so not only are saves hard to find, but you even have to pay for next-in-liners who might not ever get a save.

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