It all started two weeks ago with a rumor that former Philadelphia Phillies closer Ryan Madson was offered a four year contract worth $44 million to continue in that role. Days later Jonathan Papelbon was the person who actually signed with the Phillies for $50 million over four years with an option worth another $10 million. The Texas Rangers then signed former Minnesota Twins closer, Joe Nathan to a two-year deal worth $14.5 million. Not to be outdone, the Miami Marlins entered the fray reportedly agreeing to a 3-year/$27 million deal, including a vesting option for a 4th year at $9 million, with former San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell. The market for closers has gotten out of control and the signing of Bell is no different than the ones preceding it. Too much money and time for risky propositions.
Below are Heath Bell‘s stats while with the San Diego Padres.
Bell, 34, left the New York Mets after the 2006 season and immediately blossomed into one of the best set-up men in the game. After Trevor Hoffman left for the Milwaukee Brewers, Bell took over as closer. He saved over 40 games in each of the last three seasons. In 2011, Bell had an ERA of 2.44 with a 1.149 WHIP. Nice season. This looks like a good signing by the Marlins, right? Not so fast.
Bell’s SO/9 dropped from 11.1 in 2010 to 7.3 in 2011. Hmm. His fastball speed averaged 94 mph in both seasons. He pretty much only throws a curveball besides his fastball. Guess what? His curveball became a minus pitch (-0.77 wCB/c) for him last season. Hitters made contact off Bell at the largest percentage of his career; 68.2% on pitches out of the zone, 90.8% on pitches in the zone and 81.8% total. With all the contact how did he keep his ERA down to such a respectable level? His BABIP against was .261. So, while Bell simply did not have a strikeout pitch last season he did have some luck on his side in retiring batters.
The next set of peripherals to look at are xFIP and SIERA provided by FanGraphs. Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is a predictive measure which uses league average home run rates instead of the pitcher’s home run rate as FIP does in order to predict future ERAs. In 2011 Bell’s xFIP registered at 3.67 suggesting his 2011 ERA is somewhat misleading due to the wonderful confines of PETCO Park. SIERA is a newer measure on FanGraphs which is slightly better predictor of future ERA than xFIP. SIERA tries to take into account balls in play (where xFIP ignores them) and accounts for the complexity of pitching. Strikeouts are weighted higher, walks are bad and worse if you walk a lot of batters, and balls in play is a complicated measure but basically higher ground ball rates lead to outs and players with higher rates get better weighted SIERA numbers. Bell’s SIERA in 2011 was 3.50 which is slightly below average for relievers.
Lastly a look at Bell’s worth to the team is in order. Bell’s WAR for 2011 was 0.5, preceded by seasons of 2.4 in 2010 and 2.0 in 2009. With Bell moving to a less friendly place to pitch, can the Marlins truly feel he will deliver something back in the 2 WAR range when he barely broke it in his “finer” seasons with the Padres while pitching in PETCO? In order for this contract to “break even” that’s where he’d need to be. Maybe he is able to do it for one season. But three?
There is one other factor to consider in this. New Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen. He has not necessarily shown great restraint when it comes to his closers. Ask Bobby Jenks, Matt Thornton, Chris Sale and Sergio Santos how easy it is to be Guillen’s closer. I don’t know much about Bud Black, but I’m going to guess he is no Ozzie Guillen. It begs the question as to whether Guillen’s handling of the bullpen will have any adverse affects on Bell’s performance.
The Marlins are moving into a new stadium which is providing them with the resources to make a big splash in the free agent market. No one can blame them for being in on Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and others. They can’t really be blamed for getting in on Bell. But, they can be at fault for doling out more than he is worth. It is just another example of a team going way beyond the reasonable salary and contract term for a closer. Ryan Madson can’t wait for his turn!
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Tags: Albert Pujols Bobby Jenks C.J. Wilson Chris Sale Closers FWAR Heath Bell Joe Nathan Jonathan Papelbon Jose Reyes Matt Thornton Miami Marlins Relievers Ryan Madson San Diego Padres Sergio Santos SIERA XFIP