I can already sense that this article is going to be longer than it needs to be. I could probably condense this thing into a single paragraph and get the point across. But they don't pay me to write single paragraphs. They pay me to write a bunch of single paragraphs, arranged in an order. I like to get paid.
So. Before there was Jose Reyes, before there was Mark Buehrle, before there was Carlos Zambrano, and before there was an intensified pursuit of Albert Pujols, the Miami Marlins signed 34-year-old free agent closer Heath Bell to a three-year contract worth $27 million. Bell got the terms that he wanted, and the Marlins demonstrated that they were going to be a little looser than usual, in a non-sexual way.
Bell was brought in to replace
Juan Carlos Oviedo Leo Nunez no wait Juan Carlos Oviedo, and he came with a heck of a track record. Over three years closing in San Diego, he saved 132 games, with a 2.36 ERA. Understanding the whole Petco effect, Bell posted a lower three-year ERA than Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria and Darren Oliver. Remember that Darren Oliver is good now.
Yet Bell's shiny 2011 ERA masked something potentially sinister. I present to you a selection of Bell's strikeout rates:
A strikeout rate of 28% is great. A strikeout rate of 30% is great. A strikeout rate of 19% is league-average for a reliever. This is kind of alarming.
It was a combination of a couple of things. His strikeout rate probably fell a little bit because — for whatever reason — he was behind in the count more often than in previous years. I would guess, without doing any hard studies, that his first-pitch ratio wasn’t as good. He wasn’t throwing a first-pitch strike as often as in years past. When you’re behind 1-0, 2-0, you’re not going to strike as many guys out. Guys are going to get into more-favorable hitting counts and put the ball into play.
Reasonable. Somewhat worrisome, but reasonable. The only problem is that it doesn't check out. Some numbers:
Percent plate appearances in which Bell fell behind 1-0
Percent plate appearances in which Bell got ahead 0-1
Last season, nothing about Heath Bell's first-pitch ratios was out of whack. If anything, he was a little better than usual in that regard. And while we're here, why don't we look at some other, related numbers?
Strikeout rate after falling behind 1-0
Strikeout rate after getting ahead 0-1
Bell posted a lower-than-normal strikeout rate after falling behind. He posted a lower-than-normal strikeout rate after getting ahead. He just didn't get his normal strikeouts.
Which is curious, since there was no evident decline in the quality of his stuff. His fastball still got up there at 94. His curve still got up there at 82. He didn't significantly change his pitch mix. His pitches just missed fewer bats. Along with his decreased strikeout rate, Bell posted a correspondingly increased contact rate against. In 2010, 74% of all swings against Bell made contact. In 2011, that shot up to 82%. In a year, Bell went from having the same contact rate as Mike Adams to having the same contact rate as Kevin Gregg.
So what's the matter with Bell? There are two options:
The second one is serious. Bell's a reliever. Relievers don't throw that many innings, leaving them vulnerable to the whimsy of small sample sizes. It's possible that Bell's reduced strikeout rate was just a statistical fluke. After all, it's not like that hasn't happened to him before.
Heath Bell's strikeout rates
Bell didn't really change anything in 2008. His strikeouts just dipped, before they recovered the next year. No problem.
But while it could be nothing, it could be something. Relievers are volatile. Bell's getting up there in years. It's important for relievers to get strikeouts - especially expensive relievers - so this will be something to monitor pretty closely looking ahead. The Marlins made a big commitment to Heath Bell. Heath Bell's recent resume features a big, giant, perplexing red flag. If Heath Bell's declining, then this could get ugly real fast.