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Heath Bell More Effective, Still Should Not Close For Marlins

May 22, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins relief pitcher Heath Bell (21) gets a save against the Colorado Rockies at Marlins Park. The Marlins defeated the Rockies 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE
May 22, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins relief pitcher Heath Bell (21) gets a save against the Colorado Rockies at Marlins Park. The Marlins defeated the Rockies 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

Yes, Heath Bell recorded what might have been his best outing of the 2012 season yesterday. He pitched the ninth inning of a 5-3 game and helped shut the door with a two-strikeout outing. Believe me, the first person who was impressed was me. After Bell went six outings without even recording a swinging strike (he did induce two foul tips into the glove total in his last three outings), he got three swings and misses today and struck out two batters.

If we play the location game as we were after his last outing, we can see that he was able to better spot a number of his pitches. After he threw a wild fastball up to fall behind 2-0 against Rick Ankiel, he threw this encouraging pitch. Here is where Buck wanted it.


Here is where it ended up.


That was pinpoint perfect location, the same sort of location he got on those curveballs the other night before his fastball got away from him. When he wanted to get a whiff, he got it, though it was not due to location. Here was the desired location for his out pitch against Ankiel.


Here is where the pitch actually went.


Relative to where Buck wanted it, it was a poor location. It did go out of the zone, however, and at its mid-90's speed, it blew past Ankiel.

His payoff pitch versus Carlos Maldonado, however, was better. Here is where it was supposed to go.


Here is where it went.


In other words, against these three hitters, Bell was a good deal better. His location was still wild enough to be concerned, as he threw a number of fastballs way high after trying to locate them low in the zone.



Perhaps only one of those pitches up in the zone were designed to be there, and the ones that landed in the strike zone were dangerous, even though they did induce whiffs. The good news is that Bell was able to miss three bats today in a season in which he has struggled mightily to induce swings and misses. That, combined with his slightly better location, are good signs of things to come.

So, all is well with Heath Bell? Can he be the closer from now on? I am not so certain, and I think it may still be the right idea to not have him close games for the Marlins right now.

Rob Neyer of SB Nation's Baseball Nation talked a little bit about this when he read that manager Ozzie Guillen was sticking with Heath Bell despite his struggles. Remember, Ozzie said this:

"But I’m the manager, and I’m not going to kick the guy when he’s down," he said. "I think my job is to continue to believe in him. I will take full responsibility if we fail in that department.

"He’s not hurt. He still throws pretty good. I wish he’d throw more strikes. So does he. But I will bite the bullet from the fans, from the front office, from everybody."

To which Neyer replied the following:

Bell's pitched so few innings this season, though, that just about any sort of statistical fluke is perfectly possible. I happen to think Guillen might be right about this one: It's too early to give up on Heath Bell, if he really is healthy; but until he starts controlling the strike zone, he should be on a short leash.

I would generally agree that 18 innings is a really short period of time to be judging any player's individual performance. It is certainly possible that we have just seen the absolute worst of Heath Bell in 2012. As an example, I looked at Bell's worst 20 games of the 2011 season. In those 20 worst games, Bell threw just 20 innings and had a 7.65 ERA and a 6.73 FIP, so it is certainly understandable that a pitcher, even one as good as Bell, can have a stretch of terrible games. Similarly, we can look at Bell's 20 worst games in his stellar 2011, and while he at least posted a 3.45 FIP in those games, he still had a 6.64 ERA. This means that Bell is perhaps still as good as at least his mediocre 2011 version with weaker peripherals.

But it is absolutely undeniable that Bell is struggling right now. His location is off, and while no one is projecting that he will continue in a state of complete collapse, it is hardly arguable right now that Bell is the team's best reliever. Fish Stripes readers may be able to make that statement, given that they understand regression to the mean and not being slaves to small sample sizes. I can certainly make that statement for the same reasons. But Guillen's reasoning here does not fall in line with his actions with regards to other players, in particular first baseman Gaby Sanchez.

Sanchez had a slew of terrible games to start the year and was demoted to Triple-A the previous weekend. No one will argue that the current Marlins, as constructed, are better off with Sanchez in Triple-A and Bryan Petersen or Chris Coghlan starting in left field. Even the benefit of moving Logan Morrison from the outfield to the infield is not going to necessarily offset what we project from Sanchez's bat versus the bat of either of those two backup outfielders. But while everyone recognizes that, Guillen and the Marlins front office still had Sanchez "work on his swing" in Triple-A despite suspecting that he would recover and that the team was still better with him in the lineup.

How does Sanchez's situation differ from Bell's? It is far more clear that Bell is struggling mightily than Sanchez, especially since, with Bell, individual pitches can be dissected as I showed at the beginning of this article. Why does Bell receive the special treatment of the manager's "vote of confidence" while players like Sanchez get demotions when they struggle? Such treatment makes even less sense when you consider how easy it is to make the move with relievers; these players have natural tiers within which they can be moved to impact the game more or less. If Bell needed time to work on his stuff and mechanics, he could simply do it in the seventh or eighth innings, in less crucial situations, than in the ninth. Why force him to work it out in his eventual role when Sanchez was not allowed the same treatment?

Of course, part of Guillen's job is to manage the psyche of the players as well, and that is one aspect that I simply know nothing about. Perhaps in that time when Bell was demoted, he sulked enough that Guillen found it detrimental to his success and the team's success. Perhaps Bell is insistent on working out his problems in the ninth, and Guillen is giving the heftily-paid veteran his chance. Perhaps in the seventh inning, Bell would never receive the right amount of work with which he could improve his current game. I am not privy to these things, and I imagine one of these psyche-based reasons is behind the continued use of Bell in the late innings. And maybe that is for the better. But from a performance standpoint, I see little harm in allowing Bell to work out any possible kinks for a couple of outings before the ninth, especially with the team in a tight race with a lot of division competitors coming to play them.

If the club can do it to Sanchez, why not do it to a lesser extent to Bell, in this his roughest of times? Can it really be called "kicking the guy when he's down" when the ultimate goal is to try and help him back up?