Heath Bell Is Not A Valid Option

Heath Bell labours heavily after standing up and walking to the mound.

Ken Rosenthal Of FOX Sports is not only reporting that the Toronto Blue Jays are “targeting” free agent closer Heath Bell, but also that such a pursuit makes sense given that the team “had 25 blown saves last season, tied for the third highest total in the majors.”

From a previous post, on this very blog:

By looking at the 25 blown saves, we further learn that even with the addition of a mythical closing saviour, 25 blown saves doesn’t equal 25 more victories or 25 less losses.

First of all, of the 25 blown saves that Blue Jays relievers committed last season, three times two blown saves occurred in the same game. Of the 23 games in which a blown save occurred, seven of those games still resulted in a Toronto Blue Jays victory. Of the sixteen losses resulting from a blown save, only half of the blown saves occurred in the ninth inning or later, when a “proven closer” type would be more likely to have been used. Of the eight saves blown in the ninth inning or later, two were blown by non-closers who were only pitching because the closer wasn’t available. This leaves us with six losses in which the team’s closer blew a save or was taken out of the game in the ninth inning and the replacement reliever blew a save.

Six times this happened all season. Let’s pretend that the Blue Jays closers were perfect last season. It would add a whopping total of six wins and take away six losses. Let’s extend this fantasy even further and say that Toronto’s closers were perfect and every other teams’ closers were their regular selves. The Toronto Blue Jays would have an 87-75 record, still ten games back of the division winners, and four games back of the Wild Card.

I understand that the addition of a proven closer might allow you to better spread out your relief arm options, perhaps mitigating some of the other bullpen failings from last season, but even if I’m willing to buy into what is essentially a “could have happened” scenario, Heath Bell is not the player in which the Blue Jays should be interested.

Let’s not even bother discussing Bell’s age (34) or his weight (260+ lbs), or his declining abilities to command pitches (see above), and for now, focus on the fact that he has spent the last five years of his career pitching in San Diego. Petco Park is the best park in baseball for pitchers. That’s not a subjective statement. It’s not based on some obscure form of voodoo science. It’s a fact.

Dave Cameron from FanGraphs explains why this is vital when considering Heath Bell as a free agent option:

Bell is one of the signature beneficiares of how the park plays. In his career, he’s faced 791 batters in San Diego – 10 of them have managed to hit the ball over the wall, one for every 79.1 batters he faced. Away from the friendly confines, he has faced 1,182 batters and allowed 20 home runs, one for every 59.1 batters that have come up to bat against him. His home run prevention has been 34 percent better in San Diego than in all other ballparks, which of course makes perfect sense, given that he’s a right-handed pitcher and fly balls to right field in Petco have almost no chance of reaching the seats.

The park hasn’t just deflated his home run rate either – his career BABIP in San Diego is just .269, but his combined average against on balls in play in all other parks is .334. His BABIP away from San Diego is likely higher than his true talent level, and I wouldn’t suggest that teams should expect Bell to become eminently hittable upon signing with a new team, but the evidence shows that Bell has never been able to perform well on balls in play in any stadium besides Petco Park. At the minimum, that has to be concerning.

Cameron goes on to compare Bell’s numbers with a familiar Frank’s through the last three seasons:

Name BB% K% HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Bell 8.9% 26.3% 0.36 0.293 79.10% 64 70 79
Francisco 7.9% 26.5% 1.06 0.299 76.00% 85 79 79

All signs point to Bell seeking a three year deal worth something in the neighbourhood of $30 million, while Francisco will be seeking a fraction of that for a far shorter term.

If we go back to the original Getting Blanked post that I linked to after the jump, we see how rare it is that multiple year deals signed by relievers end up working out. And we also see that those relievers seldom even face the highest leverage situations or find success in the high leverage situations that they do end up facing. This history combined with the park factors under which Heath Bell has found his success and gained his reputation, would make signing him to anything resembling the contract he seeks, a colossal mistake.

I don’t see any evidence to suggest that spending money on a closer is a fiscally responsible way of doing business in baseball. It may seem redundant to point out that relievers aren’t starting pitchers or even position players. Yes, they face high leverage situations, but it must be remembered that the most batters a closer faced last season was Carlos Marmol’s 327. He had 327 chances to succeed or fail.

That’s less plate appearances than Corey Patterson made for the Blue Jays last season. And it’s in line with the amount of batters that Jesse Litsch faced in 2011. Adding a reliever, even one of the highest quality available, isn’t like adding an important bat or a quality starting pitcher. Their limited work, the higher replacement level and the smaller sample size that they offer combine to make them a riskier investment that’s simply not worth what some teams in the market are willing to pay.

That’s writing about closers in general terms. When it comes to the specific case of Heath Bell, it’s so monumentally obvious that he’s not worth the money that it would take to sign him that I’m absolutely flabbergasted that a team like the Blue Jays, an organization that has been acquiring talent in such an intelligent manner, would be interested in him at all.

Stay away. Stay very far away.