Heath Bell Brings Stability At High Cost For Marlins

As mentioned last night, Heath Bell and the Miami Marlins agreed to a three-year deal worth $27 million. The deal includes a vesting option for a fourth season, also worth $9 million. I expressed a fair bit of dislike for the deal last evening on Twitter, but with an evening to mull it over in my sleep, has my opinion of the closer acquisition changed?

The truth is that there are two sides to this deal. From a pure baseball perspective, ignoring the financial component, there is not much to complain about. Despite some understandable misgivings about Bell's stats as of late, he remains one of the best relievers in the game and is very likely to perform well for the Marlins at least in 2012. Chances are that the Marlins got a good closer for at least two seasons.

Unfortunately, the other half of the deal involves the financial aspect, and no matter how you slice it, it just is not very good. For a team that is still likely working on a budget, one figures that the Marlins would be wiser with their money than to spend the first batch of it on the most overvalued commodity in the free agent market: relief pitching. At this point, the best the Marlins can hope for is that Bell returns to 2009 and 2010 form, because they are paying for just about that much value from him. Anything less and the team will not get their money's worth.

The Baseball Side

Yesterday, we mentioned Bell's stats over the last three seasons, but it's worth pointing them out once again.

Bell IP K% BB% ERA FIP
2011 62 2/3 19.9 8.2 2.44 3.23
2010 70 30.0 9.8 1.93 2.05
2009 69 2/3 28.4 8.6 2.71 2.42
2009-2011 202 1/3 26.3 8.9 2.36 2.54

Again, those stats are impressive, even with the decline in 2011. Looking at three different evaluation methods for Bell in terms of Wins Above Replacement, we saw a possible 1.7-win player per season over the last three years. The Marlins must be expecting a similar performance again next season, because their deal pays fro approximately that much in terms of market value.

Can we expect a similar performance? Perhaps, but there are two concerns that need to be mentioned when discussing Bell. The first is the obvious effect of Petco Park. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs brought up how Bell has been a beneficiary of the park since he arrived in 2007, particularly in the home run department. He also mentions that because one of Bell's primary sticking points is his home run suppression despite slightly above-average ground ball rates, moving away from Petco permanently would be a big hit to him.

Here is how the numbers bear out since Bell's arrival in San Diego in 2007.

Bell, 2007-2011 IP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% BABIP ERA FIP
Home 200 25.1 8.6 48.5 5.8 .264 2.38 3.25
Road 174 26.5 8.8 47.2 4.1 .300 2.69 3.15

The numbers as shown here simply do not show a significant difference in home / road splits since 2007. Now, given the small samples that are naturally going to curse reliever analysis, this is not guarantee. In addition, we do know that Petco Park is a significant run suppressor, so we should not get overly confident in Bell's ability to maintain a strong performance outside of Petco; he is still likely to be worse outside of Petco and in the new Marlins stadium. Having said that, seeing the numbers put together like this, especially with the home run totals, does help in relieve some concerns about the splits.

The other major problem facing Bell was his sudden drop in strikeout rate in 2011. Bell's swinging strike rate fell from a two-year stay in the 10 percent range to 8.3 percent last year, mimicking his 2008 season at 8.6 percent. Here is how his 2010 and 2011 plate discipline numbers work out.

Bell Swing% Contact% Zone Swing% Outside Swing% Zone Contact% Outside Contact%
2011 46 81 59 30 90 64
2010 41 73 56 27 84

51

Hitters were swinging at more of Bell's offerings and making more contact. We're still dealing with small samples, but these sorts of stats usually become predictive faster than things like strikeouts, so the fact that hitters were more willing to offer at Bell and were able to put the bat on the ball more often is concerning as well. Right now, we still have only a three-year projection to go with, but the most recent down year suggests that at least he will be worse than his three-year numbers have him.

The Money

Acquiring Heath Bell is not likely to be a problem in a vacuum. Unfortunately, the Marlins had to do it via free agency, and they did so by paying $27 million with a possibility of $36 million to acquire him. Depending on how you project Bell, he is at best around a two-WAR player next season. The Marlins would be paying $4.5 million per win next year for Bell's services. If he does not decline over the life of the deal (a risky bet at best), the Marlins would essentially have paid market value for Bell's services.

What's wrong with that? The question is whether the money Bell is now taking up would have been better spent elsewhere. The Marlins had three potential in-house options in Jose Ceda, Steve Cishek, and Edward Mujica that they could have turned to instead of acquiring Bell. None of those three players would have likely been more than a win worse than Bell as the Marlins' closer, meaning the team made a minimal upgrade at the position and spent $9 million to do so.

Consider how well the Fish have been getting by even with the likes of Leo Nunez. Thanks to Fish Stripes friend Eno Sarris, we found out that the Marlins have saved 82 percent of their save opportunities since 2009, which is the league average. If Bell is set to save 90 percent (90.4 percent over the last three seasons), the team would only get about four fewer blown saves a season. Then consider that teams do not lose all blown saves, and you are looking at around two games worth of improvement if Bell performs at his 2009 to 2011 level. Yes, that is a gain, but one questions whether it is worth three guaranteed, high-paid years.

Finally, consider the alternatives on the market. In the linked piece by Dave Cameron, he mentions that fellow free agent Frank Francisco was likely to make a little less than what Bell will make and would have performed close to similarly. Indeed, the differences between Francisco's three-year numbers and Bell's are not all that impressive.

Name BB% K% HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Bell 8.9% 26.3% 0.36 0.293 79.10% 64 70 79
Francisco 7.9% 26.5% 1.06 0.299 76.00% 85 79 79

Yes, there is a difference, for sure, but given where they have pitched, at least some of it can be explained by the park. Francisco would have been perhaps half a win worse than Bell but would have cost less and required likely fewer years in commitment. With other alternatives on the market that have the so-called "closer experience" and would have gone for less, it is puzzling that the Marlins decided to splurge on one of the better remaining closers despite the small differences between the players involved.

This analysis does not even get into the possibility that Bell's money may interfere with other signings or potential moves, as apparently the Marlins may have enough budget to fit a closer and their more important needs. But looked at as an isolated move, the signing of Bell is not one that garners a significant upgrade, especially given the potential upside of the team's in-house options versus the relative lack of upside in Bell's performance. The team decided to pay for security at the back end of the pen despite the availability of similar players for cheaper and the promise of in-house options. There is little to no upside, as it is particularly difficult for closers to break three wins in even the best of seasons (Bell has only once been around the three-win plateau, and that was when he threw 93 innings as a set-up man for Trevor Hoffman). However, with Bell's age and recent struggles, there is at least some risk for downside, meaning the Marlins can hope to at best look competent and at worst foolish when this deal is over.

Some of you Fish Stripers have already told me what you thought, but talk to me again. What do you think of the deal in terms of baseball and in terms of money? Try not to consider the possibility of future moves and keep this in isolation.

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