One of the best closers in the game, Heath Bell is moving from the left coast to the right coast as his days in San Diego have ended. As you are well aware at this point, Bell signed a 3-year deal to close for the Marlins worth $27 million (there is an option of $9 million for 2015). Did the Marlins solidify the 9th inning or did they add a slightly overweight, skill deteriorating righty who might be a mighty expensive setup man by the end of the contract (one thing we do know for certain is that the Marlins new uniforms are awful looking, hideous actually)?
There is no disputing the fact that Bell has been one of the best closers in baseball the last three years. Each of those seasons saw Bell produce at least 42 saves making him the only arm in the game with at least 40-saves each of the past three campaigns. Obviously, it’s hardly a surprise that his total of 132 saves leads baseball the past three years (the Giants’ Brian Wilson is second with 122 of those suckers). Bell clearly knows how to shut the door on opponents when given the chance. However, I’m a bit nervous when it comes to Bell. Why? You know I’m gonna tell you…
Bell saw his ERA rise by half a run last year to 2.44, but that doesn’t concern me. ERA’s can be artificially low or high with relievers because of their low innings pitched totals. If we take things to the next level and look at his xFIP we see a 3.67 mark, nearly half a run above his career mark and the second worst total of his career. It’s pretty easy to see why his xFIP was elevated last year – he simply didn’t pitch as well as we’re used to seeing.
(1) Bell’s K/9 rate in 2011was 7.32, a career worst, and 1.90 below his career rate. That’s a scary dip. Bell cut his BB/9 rate down to 3.02, a 4-year best actually, but still 0.01 above his career rate. The result was a K/BB of 2.43, more than half a batter below his career level and a career worst number. Concerns about here.
(2) Bell was greatly aided by Petco Park during his career as a Padres’ reliever. Bell allowed only eight homers over his last three seasons when he hurled 202.1 innings. That’s really not a sustainable rate for a guy who has posted a GB/FB ratio of about 1.25 the past three years. If a few more of those flies reach the seats, Bell’s ERA will go way up. Speaking of batted balls, Bell has seen his ground ball rate dip the past couple of years, and his 43.3 percent mark in 2011 was a career worst. This is another somewhat troubling trend.
(3) Bell had a .261 BABIP in 2011, .040 points below his career rate. Given that he also permitted a line drive rate of 21.3 percent, a 5-year high, a pretty strong case can be made that Bell’s fantasy numbers last season were better than they should have been.
None of the above signals that the end of Bell’s run of success is going to be in May of 2012. However, there are enough cracks in the armor here that you should be wary of Bell having yet another stupendous season. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible that he will go off once again, he’s been an elite option for three years now, but I will say this – the trends that we’ve seen from Bell do not paint the picture of a man who still possesses his former elite level skills. Not as young as you might think he is, Bell is already 33 years old and coming off his worst season in three years. Barring injury he’ll likely continue to rack up saves, and a top-10 type closing season still seems quite probable, but his days as an elite closer are likely much closer to the end of the story than the introduction.
By Ray Flowers