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The Marlins, Heath Bell, and the Follies of Investing in the Bullpen


Yesterday, the Miami Marlins may have suffered their most demoralizing loss in the last month in their 13-12 defeat at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately for the Fish, this loss following their amazing comeback came at the hands of Heath Bell, who allowed a leadoff walk, got two outs, but then surrendered the game-winning home run to Aramis Ramirez on an 0-1 pitch down the middle of the plate.

This latest downfall is yet another setback in Bell's career with the Marlins. At first, we were all concerned because he was out of control and unable to reel in his fastball. Then in May, the results began to look better even if the process still looked poor. Then it looked like things were looking up, though I said we should still be wary. Things were good for about five innings, and then he blew a four-run lead against the Cardinals and now this outing.

The overall ledger on Heath Bell this season still is not pretty.

2012 31 19.6 12.2 6.39 4.28

He has pulled to within respectable peripherals, even after allowing just his third home run of the season. His strikeouts have gone up since late May, when he began looking better. But overall, we are still looking at 31 of the worst bullpen innings the Marlins have received from one player, especially one guy who was signed to pitch the highest leverage innings.

And therein lies an issue I have with the way the Marlins have constructed their team. After years of being careful with their money when building the bullpen, the Marlins have drastically increased their investment on bullpens. Before last season, the Fish traded a useful, if disappointing, piece in center fielder Cameron Maybin for two relievers, one of whom was entering his first year of arbitration. The Marlins inexplicably signed Juan Oviedo to a $6 million deal in his last season of arbitration despite the fact that he was indefinitely suspended by the team due to his identity fraud case. The team invested $27 million over three seasons on Heath Bell coming off the former Padres closer's worst season.

Where has all that investment gotten them? Here is how the top seven Marlins relievers in innings pitched performed and what the team paid for in bullpen expenses each season since 2008. The salaries include the top seven guys in innings pitched plus any other relievers not making the pre-arbitration rookie salaries.

Marlins Bullpen ERA ERA- FIP FIP- Salary ($mil)
2012 4.46 111 3.68 93 $12.2
2011 3.41 88 3.54 91 $9.3
2010 3.36 82 3.65 90 $5.7
2009 3.39 79 3.96 92 $3.6
2008 3.60 83 4.12 94 $5.3

Prior to the last two seasons, the Marlins had saved a significant amount of money on their bullpen. While the percentages of their bullpen spending as compared to their overall payroll have fluctuated up and down, the raw values have increased in the last two years. And these salaries do not even consider the investment in terms of trades and signings that have yet to play (Oviedo).

What has been the result? The Marlins have perfomed exactly the same with their bullpen.

The differences in terms of performance by the bullpens each season are minute. Prior to this year's team, the Fish have had top relievers throw somewhere around 10 to 20 percent better than the league average in ERA. Some of that is to be expected, since relievers are expected to be better than league average. In terms of FIP, the Marlins have been right around five to 10 percent better than the league average FIP each season, regardless of spending. In other words, no matter the spending, the Marlins' top relievers have done what they usually do every year.

Why is this a problem? Before the season, we discussed the dangers of investing in your bullpen. There are problems in that front office evaluators may be evaluating relievers and particularly closers as more valuable than they actually are. In addition, the Marlins already had a decent set of relievers without having to overpay for a closer. Furthermore, spending in free agency has a natural bent towards overspending, because you are spending based on a player's past performance and possibly not considering his future.

But the most important reason as to why this is a problem is that reliever performance is inherently unpredictable. We are watching pitchers throw 50 to 70 innings a season and making generalizations about their performance. The truth is that we are not entirely sure about a starter's performance after three seasons of work, and relief pitchers throw the equivalent of one season of a starter's innings in three years. With that kind of uncertainty over the future performance of a player, why would the Marlins invest money on such a fickle asset?

The case of Heath Bell was particularly interesting because he was coming off one of his worst seasons of his career. His strikeout rate fell from 25 percent career to 20 percent last season, and so far this year, it has not changed. Last year's rate was at 19.9 percent, and this season Bell has struck out only 19.6 percent of batters faced. Unless the Marlins were blind and only saw his ERA and saves totals, they had to know that Bell was coming off a weak season and that considering that and the natural unreliability of relievers, investing $27 million over three seasons would be a mistake.

But unfortunately, the team went ahead with the signing anyway, and I lamented the move, pointing out that history was not on our side. And though I thought Bell would have a bounceback year just based on his projections, there was a decent chance for a downfall that the Marlins would regret; indeed, a number of relievers following multi-year contracts in the past failed to live up to their previous expectations. The fact that Bell has performed this poorly only serves to prove the point that relievers are not reliable enough to warrant significant investment.

Don't get me wrong, Bell can improve. But inconsistent results from free agents can be a killer if they go south, and relievers are especially prone to being unable to project appropriately. The Marlins could have easily spent this money and resources for upgrades elsewhere on the roster, but they chose to invest their largest sum of money ever put into a bullpen, and sure enough, the results do not justify the investment thus far. Again, it does not mean the bullpen will not improve, but it is so difficult to predict that the resources should be put elsewhere.

The Marlins fell for the allure of the free agent reliever. They paid for past performance without considering the future thoroughly. They incorrectly thought that they could easily predict what a reliever did. Instead of spending money on more certain aspects of the game like position players, they gambled on a reliever with past success but an uncertain final season and, so far, the team has lost on that gamble and has not improved its bullpen significantly, if at all. Many of you Fish Stripers could have seen something like this coming, but the Marlins did not, and now they are paying the price.