Bell Takes His Talents to South Beach
The Miami Marlins have a brand-spankin' new stadium, a bleep-prone manager and unis that are straight out of BASEketball. The team long associated with penny-pinching has been connected to every big-ticket free agent from Pujols to Reyes to Wilson, and now the Fish have bagged their first All-Star by signing Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million deal that reportedly has a $9 million vesting option for 2015. The move all but guarantees that the Marlins non-tender The Closer Formerly Known as Leo Nunez, Juan Oviedo.
While Miami apparently has plenty of cash to spend, Bell's name value may well exceed his talent level at this point. Bell, of course, has benefitted from pitching his home games in a venue with slightly less generous dimensions than Yellowstone. Simply put, mistakes that lead to runs in other parks die innocuously in Petco's vast outfield. Petco has a multi-year park factor of 93, according to Baseball-Reference, and Bell has a career .263 batting average on balls in play at home compared to a .300 BABIP on the road.
B-R's Play Index Tool has a feature that allows you to estimate a pitcher's ERA in other major league parks, as well as a neutral park (100 park factor). Here's how Bell's actual ERAs over the past three seasons compare to his estimated ERAs in a neutral pitching environment:
2009: 2.71 actual ERA, 3.32 ERA in neutral park
2010: 1.93 actual ERA, 2.32 ERA in neutral park
2011: 2.44 actual ERA, 2.85 ERA in neutral park
In a neutral park, Bell's ERA would have been between four-tenths and six-tenths of a run higher. We don't know how Miami's new stadium will play, but there's little chance it's as cozy and forgiving as Petco.
Aside from park factors, there's also the issue of Bell's significant dip in strikeouts last season. The beefy righty whiffed 28.4 percent of the batters he faced in 2009 and 30 percent in 2010, but just 19.9 percent in 2011. That was well below the 23.4 percent average for relievers this past year. Bell walked a few less hitters (8.2 BB%, compared to 9.8% in 2010 and 8.6% in 2009), but not enough to offset the decline in Ks.
There are two main reasons for Bell's lower-octane 2011. He introduced a sinker with a few more inches of tail and less vertical break than his four-seamer. The sinker, thrown about 15 percent of the time, got fewer swings and misses than his four-seamer (15.6 percent, compared to 19.2 percent for the four-seamer). And it didn't really compensate by getting lots of ground balls, either, with a 48 GB% well under the 58-59% average for relievers.
Bell's curveball got considerably fewer whiffs, too. Batters missed the low-80s breaker 28.9% in 2009 and 43.4% in 2010, but only 26.2% in 2011 (30-31% average for relievers). Opponents rarely made contact when Bell spotted his curve at the knees in '09 and '10, and they swung through some higher curves as well...
But they connected much more often on low breaking stuff in 2011, and just about never missed higher curveballs...
Bell is a big name, and he's got three consecutive seasons of 40+ saves under his belt. But he's also 34 years old, coming off a season with a troublingly low K rate and, while I don't have a copy of the contract, I'm pretty sure there's no stipulation that allows him to take Petco with him. The Hardball Times' Oliver projects Bell to be worth around 4 Wins Above Replacement over the next three years, meaning Miami would be paying $6.5 million to $7 million per win. And that's not including the vesting option, which would likely make the math worse by paying a premium to a 37-year-old Bell.
Considering that the Marlins could have gotten something like 80-90% of Bell's production with a lesser commitment in dollars and years by signing someone like Frank Francisco or Octavio Dotel, this doesn't look like a smart allocation of the club's expanded resources. Bell gets fancy cars, a big bank account, celebrity friends, maybe even a Playmate of the Year, but Miami won't get that many more W's because of this signing.