Over the last few days, I’ve listened to and heard the off-season blueprints of many a fan and pundit. Surprisingly (at least to me), Heath Bell‘s name was brought up in quite a few of them. While I am against signing relievers to long-term contracts in general, I can understand clamoring for really good relievers even if the contract may be a bit unfavorable.
Bell, however, comes with significant warning signs. First of all, he is 34 years old. The same people I’ve seen claiming the Phillies need to get younger also seem to be in favor of going after Bell, which doesn’t make sense to me. Brad Lidge‘s last three seasons — besmirched by injuries and poor performances — came in his age 32-34 seasons, when he had landed on the 15-day disabled list just once in his career entering his new contract. Needless to say, Bell’s age 34-36 seasons will come with significant risk.
Perhaps most discouraging is the precipitous decline in Bell’s strikeout rate. In 2009-10, when he ranked among baseball’s best relievers, Bell struck out 28 and 30 percent of hitters, respectively. This past season, he struck out less than 20 percent of batters faced. He set a career low in swinging strike rate at 8.3 percent, just the second time in his career he finished with a rate under nine percent.
To put Bell’s performance in context, Chad Durbin finished the season with nearly identical strikeout and walk rates compared to Bell. Durbin struck out 19 percent and walked 8 percent while Bell struck out 20 percent and walked 8 percent. Would you sign Durbin to a three-year, $30 million contract?
Bell ended 2011 with a 2.44 ERA, the third consecutive season he posted a sub-3.00 ERA and the fourth time he’s done it in the last five seasons. Despite having no unique batted ball skills, Bell benefited from a .261 BABIP, part of the reason there was such a disparity between his ERA and the various retrodictors out there (3.67 xFIP, 3.50 SIERA). Essentially, if Bell had normal batted ball luck, he wouldn’t be nearly as high on fans’ wish lists as he is currently.
For a bit of a cautionary tale, look at Jonathan Broxton from 2009 to 2010. If he was a free agent after the 2010 season, some unlucky team would have signed him to a multi-year contract for a lot of money, and he did not have anywhere near the same misleading batted ball fortune as Bell (.366 BABIP). Although Broxton’s woes go beyond not missing bats, some of the same warning signs are present in Bell, who is seven years older.
Now, Jonathan Papelbon is someone I could empathize with coveting. His strikeout and walk rates have ranged from great to incredible, with a career strikeout-to-walk rate at 4.4 (Bell’s is 3.1, for good measure). Even better, Papelbon has been allowing fewer and fewer fly balls (a significant portion of which, by the way, do not leave the infield) and has not been prone to giving up home runs.
If you’re going to sign a reliever to a bad contract, sign Papelbon and stay away from Bell.