Amid all the emotion surrounding the Miami Marlins' current Heath Bell predicament, it can be very difficult to set aside those emotions and focus on the facts. Heath Bell has indeed blown many saves this season and looked terrible on the field, but what exactly has he been doing wrong to allow all of those runs. We need to lay down the facts of what has been happening with Bell and see what observations can be made based on those facts.
To find the facts, we turn to Bell's FanGraphs page and BrooksBaseball Pitch F/X card and mention some interesting points. Perhaps there is something beyond his ERA and his primary peripherals that can tell us why he has been so terrible this season.
1) Batters are swinging at 22.3 percent of Heath Bell's out-of-zone pitches
This is compared to a 29.1 percent mark since 2007. This seems like all too relevant a problem. We have seen Bell throw his pitches at times wildly out of the zone. It seems understandable then that those pitches do not look enticing to hitters at all, and as a result hitters are not even considering offering at those pitches. In prior seasons, Bell was able to get hitters to offer more at those outside pitches; now that they are not swinging, that has a direct effect on balls versus strikes and balls in play. The average contacted ball in play is a positive result for the batter, but it is likely that contact outside of the zone is a little less effective than contact within the zone. In addition, swings out of the zone are more likely to yield swings and misses and foul balls as well, leading to more strikes rather than balls. Bell is exchanging pitches equal to almost seven percent of those out-of-zone pitches from potential swinging strikes and weak balls in play to balls, which is directly affecting his walk rate.2) Batters are making contact on Bell's in-zone pitches at a 92.3 percent clip
This is compared to an 87.0 percent mark since 2007. Hitters are actually making more contact on Bell's out-of-zone pitches as well, and his overall contact rate has climbed up to almost 86 percent from a career 78 percent mark.
What is the significance of this? Remember when I railed against Bell for failing to whiff batters and induce swinging strikes, even as he was getting saves in May? Remember those long outs and fly balls that landed in gloves at the tail end of that month? When those are going well, no one complains, but when those contacted balls in play are hit just a little better and just a little bit to the left or right of fielders, they start falling for hits and fans complain. Therein lies the importance of the swinging strike and the strikeout; those are guaranteed outs every time, with no dependence on defense or stadium factors. When Bell was an elite closer, batters whiffed on as high as almost 11 percent of his pitches; now, those hitters are only whiffing on five percent of those pitches.
That means there is more contact, and contact is always better for hitters. A swinging strike is as good as a called strike, in that both advance to and can result in strikeouts. But non-bunt contacted balls cannot result in strikeouts, and balls in play are always in the favor of the batter (the average ball in the field of play is actually a most neutral event, but home runs are massively positive batter events), so losing almost four to seven percent of his usual swinging strikes is a major loss of value. Not only are batters taking more balls off of Bell, but they are making more contact and thus reducing strikes.
3) Bell's percentage of fastballs used is up to 69 percent.
This is up from a 64 percent career mark. There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, this could simply be due to a lack of control; if Bell cannot place his early pitches in the zone, he will naturally fall behind in counts and, as a result, he will throw more fastballs to better place them into the zone. What is odd is that Bell has not actually done a terrible job of getting ahead early in the count at least. His rate of first strikes based on the number of 0-1 counts he has reached is at 52.4 percent, higher than his career 51.5 percent mark. It seems that, from there, Bell has failed to advance to a two-strike count, as his 1-2 and 0-2 counts are lower than his career marks, but that could be due to contact more than control issues.
The second potential issue could be that he has just lacked confidence in his curveball. It has been easy to see Bell bury many a curveball without a swing, and the numbers do support a lack of strikes from seasons past .He has thrown it for fewer strikes and more balls, with a 12.6 percent called strike rate and a 4.3 balls to called strike ratio. Compare those numbers to his career 19.7 percent called strike rate and 2.1 balls to called strike ratio, and you can see why he might lack confidence in placing it in the zone, especially when working more even or behind counts. Without confidence in using his second pitch, hitters are perhaps more able to get the jump on his fastball, which has not lost any life or movement but has somehow become less effective.
Obviously, these are three major facts to point out in Bell's 2012 thus far. It does not necessarily tell us what is wrong. Is he locating poorly, as I have alluded to earlier in the season? Is it his pitch selection that is hurting his ability to get fastballs past hitters, or is the location adjusting his pitch selection because of the change in counts? It does not seems as though the counts are all that different, so it may not be a simple matter of throwing more fastballs while behind in counts. Is his curveball shot? None of the basic factors seem to have changed, yet the results have been awful thus far.
One thing we can say is that his stuff is still there. But something about his approach or location have allowed hitters to be more selective with him, and that aspect of waiting out Bell for the right pitch has demolished his game so far this half. Can it be fixed? Perhaps, but with age-related decline likely also involved, we do not know how much of this is simply irreversible. But the Marlins are going to pay a lot of money over the next few seasons to find out, whether it will be in the closer's role or somewhere else in the pen.