Miami Marlins' Heath Bell Has Been Getting Better, But Still Not Good

Aug 12, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins relief pitcher Heath Bell (21) throws during the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Marlins Park. The Dodgers won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Look, it has been really easy to pile on with regards to Heath Bell. The Miami Marlins' first signature signing of the offseason was Bell, and it was clearly their worst idea. It did not take long for me and other Fish Stripes authors to lambaste the move as unnecessary and risky, but of course, none of could foresee the season that he has had thus far.

Which is why it is not surprising to hear that the Marlins may be more than willing to cut ties with Bell after an opening season of struggles. Bell's 6.07 ERA is particularly glaring, but the funny thing about this is that Bell has actually been doing better for a while now. And no, I do not mean since the All-Star break, after he was demoted from the closer position and relegated to setup duty. No sample size of 11 innings is going to be enough to tell us anything; heck, no sample size of an entire season of relief is going to say anything assuredly. But if you take any sample size past the month of April, Bell has actually performed much better.

Bell, 2012 IP K% BB% BABIP ERA FIP
May-Present 39 1/3 20.1 8.6 .345 5.26 3.20
June-Present 26 21.4 7.1 .329 5.19 3.28
July-Present 16 2/3 16.4 8.2 .321 5.94 3.69

Of course, taking away a player's worst month is going to make him look much better, but these numbers show that Heath Bell has clearly begun regressing to the mean since that awful first month. Even with his relatively poor May in terms of strikeouts and walks, we are still looking at a Bell who has been constantly been doing better.

But what about the ERA? That's on Bell's BABIP and thus inability to strand runners. Of course, some of that is on him, and some of that is on bad luck and defensive misplay. It is far more likely that the truth of Bell's 2012 pitching performance is somewhere in between that 5.26 ERA and that 3.20 FIP.

The BABIP Issue

We have mentioned this quite a few times, but we do know that BABIP is not as heavily under the influence of the pitcher as statistics such as strikeouts and walks. So Bell's performance on balls in play cannot be solely his fault and should not be fully credited to him. But we do know that, throughout much of the season, he has also struggled with his pitch placement, based on the a few articles with fun pitch location pictures. And it is ridiculous to think that Bell is not at some fault for his problems with BABIP.

But with just a handful of innings in the books, it is nearly impossible to tell how much credit and blame should be spread between Bell, the defense, and blind luck. So we split the difference and presume that, in terms of BABIP, we should expect Bell to get significantly better, but perhaps not all the way down to his .305 career mark.

The Strikeouts

But the April concern was in his strikeouts. He just was not getting any, and along with walking too many batters, it was his biggest problem. Bell only induced swings and misses on 4.3 percent of his pitches, and batters were making contact on almost 90 percent of their swings at Bell's stuff.

From then on, simple regression took hold.

Bell, 2012 Swinging Strike% Contact%
May 6.1 86.4
June 7.6 81.0
July 8.5 81.7
May-Present 7.5 83.5

So clearly Heath Bell has been slowly regaining his whiffs over the course of the season. He has indeed improved, or at least begun regressing to the mean. The added whiffs has led directly to his increased strikeout rates over the last few months, indicating that he has been getting some of what made him a good pitcher back.

Improvement, But Not Success

So contrary to the idea that Bell has been bad all year until only recently, it turns out that Bell has actually been improving and regressing closer to his career averages throughout the season. But does it mean that the Marlins, should they get the opportunity to receive something in return for Bell's services, should not trade him? No! The Fish should absolutely deal Bell if it means ridding themselves of a contract that was bad when he was expected to be decent. Before the season, Bell was expected to put up 3.12 ERA according to our aggregate projections, and even that total was not close enough to be worth his contract. Now, the suspicion is that Bell is at best somewhere between a 5.20 ERA pitcher and a 3.20 ERA pitcher. Even if he is in the upper 3.00's in terms of ERA, such a reliever would not be worth more than $3 million a year at best!

No, even with Bell's improvement, the Marlins should still consider any trade they can get for him. His regression still is not bringing him ever back to where he once was as an elite reliever; with all of the improvements, something is still clearly missing. If he does improve well enough to be an effective but not elite reliever, the Marlins will be happy just to have him be a decent member of the pen, since the money is down the drain already. But if he can be traded for anything of value without the Marlins returning cash, the Fish should be ecstatic.

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