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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 onĀ  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.