The Bell Tolls for Heath

With veteran Trevor Hoffman possibly ending his 16-year relationship with the San Diego Padres, the familiar late-game tune of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” may no longer blare through the speakers at Petco Park. However, another Bell might step into the all-time save leader’s role: Heath Bell (may I suggest Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”?) The 31 year-old had to wait an awfully long time to get his shot in the majors, but he has done excellent work for the Fathers over the past two seasons.

Bell was originally selected by the Tampa Bay (then) Devil Rays in the 69th round of the 1997 draft. Suffice it to say, the 1583rd pick in the draft was not considered much of a prospect at the time. The hefty right-hander never signed on the dotted line with Tampa, and he went undrafted the following June. Bell was eventually scooped up by the New York Mets.

Despite his lack of scouting support, Bell often dominated in the minor leagues. In 468.1 frames, he whiffed 10.4 batters per nine innings, while issuing a solid 2.5 BB/9. Despite the more than 4-to-1 K/BB ratio, the 6-3, 240 pounder did not make his Queens debut until 2004, at the age of 26. In 24.1 innings for the Mets that season, Bell struck out 27 and surrendered 6 free passes.

The next two seasons, Bell would dominate the International League while shuttling back and forth between Norfolk and New York. His peripherals were excellent (78/24 K/BB in 83.2 combined innings with the Mets), but Bell was the recipient of some insanely poor luck on balls put in play: his BABIP was .374 in 2005 and an astronomical .394 in 2006. With every hitter turning into Ted Williams when the ball was put in play, Bell’s ERA was well over five during ’05 and ’06.

Apparently feeling that Bell was lousy as opposed to unlucky, the Mets shipped Heath (along with lefty Royce Ring) to the Padres for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson following the 2006 season.

Finally liberated, Bell would post one of the better relief seasons in the game in 2007. Shouldering a very heavy workload (appearing in 81 games and tossing 93.2 innings), Bell posted a 2.50 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP). Using a mid-90’s heater and a low 80’s slider, Bell punched out 9.8 batters per nine innings and walked 2.88. Bell led all relievers in innings pitched and appeared in the 6th-most games. His 3.47 WPA ranked 6th among all relievers, sandwiched between Joakim Soria and newly-minted Met Francisco Rodriguez.

Bell’s 2008 season wasn’t as dominant, though he still turned in another quality campaign. With 8.19 K/9 and 3.23 BB/9, Bell posted a 3.34 FIP. His fastball usage increased from 64% to 72%, but the offering lost over a tick in terms of speed (down to 93.4 MPH). His Contact% increased from 75.4% in ’07 to 79.5% in ’08, suggesting that his stuff was down a bit compared to his crazy 2007 season.

After his frequent usage in 2007 and more heavy lifting during the first half of the ’08 season (46 G, 50.1 IP during the first half), Bell seemed to tire down the stretch. After posting a 42/13 K/BB ratio before the All-Star break, the Oceanside, California native struggled with his control late in the season (29/15 K/BB, 19 R in 27.2 IP during the second half). Bell’s heater peaked at 94.4 MPH during June, but he was down to 92.3 MPH by September.

Take a look at Bell’s pitch F/X data from 2007 compared to 2008:

2007

Fastball: -4.3 X, 9.36 Z
Slider: 5.34 X, -2.69 Z

2008

Fastball: -1.32 X, 9.44 Z
Slider: 4.22 X, -1.91 Z

(X is horizontal movement. A negative X number means that the pitch is moving in toward a right-handed hitter, while a positive X means that the pitch is moving away from a righty hitter (in to a lefty). Z is vertical movement- the lower the Z number, the more the pitch “drops” in the strike zone.)

In addition to a drop in speed, Bell’s fastball lost about 3 inches of horizontal movement, meaning the pitch was not tailing in on right-handers nearly as much. His slider also wasn’t quite as sharp, with less break away from righties and less “tilt” down in the zone. Perhaps it was just a blip on the radar or the product of inherently small samples when dealing with relievers, but Bell went from stifling righties in ’07 (.157/.216/.203) to giving up a good deal of extra base hits against them in 2008 (.254/.307/.435).

Bell may well be in line to take over for Hoffman in San Diego, and he has produced one otherworldly season followed by another impressive showing in 2008. However, there are some danger signs here: Bell has tossed a combined 171.2 innings over the past two seasons, as strenuous a workload as any reliever has faced. His strikeout rate took a pretty large dip, down about 1.6 per nine innings, and his fastball lost both speed and movement. Perhaps an offseason of rest will help abate some of these trends, but it seems possible that Bell’s work over the past two years will go down as the highlight of his career.

As is, Bell is still a pretty good reliever. Just don’t expect the 2007 version to come trotting out of that bullpen gate, no matter what tune he settles on as his ninth-inning ditty.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


4 Responses to “The Bell Tolls for Heath”

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  1. Dorasaga says:

    I think this website is hacked. On this webpage, I’m seeing “Rotograph” from the logo on top of this page. There’s also an out-of-place “smiley” on the left of the click to “Blogroll: FanGraphs Analysis Blog”…

    Internet Security, anyone?

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  2. e says:

    its because this is the fangraphs fantasy/roto page….

    i don’t know about the smiley, but its always been there.

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  3. As e said, RotoGraphs is the name of the blog, the Roto/Fantasy section of FanGraphs. The smiley face is a standard wordpress stats thing. The site has not been hacked.

    Heath Bell’s success in San Diego is one of my favorite side stories in baseball and I hope he gets and does well in the closers role. I agree that a return to 2007 might be difficult, but I think his peripherals are a lot better than some other closers out there and he’s a pretty good guy to take a bet on if you can get him pretty cheap or later in a draft.

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