Friday, December 02, 2011

Getting to Know Heath Bell

The Miami Marlins reportedly signed Heath Bell for a reported $9 million per year for three years pending a physical. The yearly rate is somewhat lower than Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon, but does put Bell in the second echelon below them on the pay scale for closers. Bell has saved over forty games a year for the San Diego Padres for the last three years after taking over that slot from the great Trevor Hoffman. Since Bell is known mostly for his antics in the All Star Game and toiled in relative obscurity in far flung San Diego (there's some East Coast bias for you), perhaps we need to get to know Heath Bell a little bit better.

WAR doesn't always work for a closer. They pitch sixty to seventy innings a season. So unlike starting pitchers and position players, their body of work is not large enough to generally make the pay proposition work when using WAR. Bell is no different. Bell has averaged $6.9 million of worth per season based on his WAR valuation for the past five years. He's had a high of $9.8 million during that time and a low (last season) of $2.3 million. That hardly justifies paying him $9 million a season. Perhaps we have to look at Win Probability instead. If we look at the last three years, Mariano Rivera leads all relievers in WPA followed closely by Papelbon. Joakim Soria is a distant thrid behind those two and Heath Bell is right behind Soria. Based on that, his pay slot not in the top tier but in the second tier makes sense.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sport tweeted this last night: "Marlins give Heath Bell and his rapidly declining K rate $27M, per. Good to see em spend. Whether it's wise, on the other hand ... That seems a bit hyperbolic to this writer. Yes, Heath Bell struck out only 7.32 batters per nine innings last season. But it's not like that is a long term slide. In 2009 and 2010, Bell struck out 10.21 and 11.06 per nine respectively. That's not a slide. More it is a one year fall. You have to look at other factors to see whether that large dip is worrisome or not. 

For one, Bell's velocity did not dip in the slightest. He has consistently thrown his fastball at 94 MPH for the past several seasons. 2011 was no different. Unlike Rivera, who lives on the inside part of the plate, Bell stays away from batters on both sides of the plate. His heat maps are little different from years past in his approach.  The horizontal movement of his fastball was no different in 2011 than it was in 2010. It appears he lost some vertical movement from previous seasons (10.2 to 9.2). So that may explain a bit of the downward movement of his strikeouts this past season. But the reasons might be elsewhere.

For one, his curveball--a pitch he throws about 28 percent of the time--lost value in 2011. That pitch has always been rated as above average in the previous years. This past year it was in the negative. Looking at the heat maps again, fewer curves landed around the strike zone than in the past. So that might explain some of the dip in his strikeouts. 

But perhaps we can also conjecture that Bell pitched more for contact this past season. The stats seem to bear that out a little. He threw his highest percentage of first pitch strikes in his career in 2011. From 2008 to 2010, Bell averaged 1,224 pitches a season. Last season, his pitch count was down to 1,098. So without talking to him, we might guess that pitching to contact was part of his strategy. In fairness, though, he did pitch fewer innings last year than the year before. But the strategy seemed effective as he recorded a .266 BABIP against this past season.

With everything looking close to his career norms, it's hard to get too worked up about Heath Bell's strikeout rate. After all, Mariano Rivera's strikeout rate has been all over the place over the years. With Bell's homers per nine looking pretty darned similar to previous years, the loss of strikeouts is less worrisome. 

Heath Bell is the third or fourth best closer in baseball. His productivity and success have been consistent over a five year period. The Marlins paid him in a range that is befitting of his ranking among his peers. Many, of course, will shake their heads at the over-inflation of closer reputations. But not in this space. After the Marlins' adventures with Leo Nunez last season (or whatever his real name is), there will be a lot more peace in their fans' minds when the ball is handed to Heath Bell in the ninth inning.

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