The trade market continues to be by far the most sizzling part of the hot stove season thus far. Tuesday afternoon, the Rays were the beneficiary, as they picked up two quality veteran players in catcher Ryan Hanigan and relief pitcher Heath Bell.
That’s right: I just used the word “quality” to refer to Heath Bell. Bell received one of the many failure-laden contracts handed out by Jeff Loria’s first version of the “Miami” Marlins, a three-year, $27 million pact that bombed instantly. Bell, a three-time All-Star in San Diego, responded with by far the worst year of his career in 2012: a 5.09 ERA and just 19 saves in 27 chances over 63.2 innings. The fish dealt him to Arizona, where he floundered again. Over 65.2 innings as a Diamondback, Bell posted a 4.11 ERA, a 4.10 FIP and seven more blown saves.
As you can see at right, this all took a major toll on the man.
It’s unlikely the 35-year-old Bell ever returns to his most dominant form from his time in San Diego, but a closer look at his season in Arizona suggests Bell has the ability to be a useful bullpen piece again.
Consider Bell’s first appearance in Arizona. In the club’s second game, Bell served up three runs on four hits, including a pair of home runs, and mustered just one out. His ERA was 81.00. It didn’t dip under 4.00 until May 27th, after 17 scoreless outings in 21 appearances. From his second game through the rest of the season — a span covering 65.1 innings — Bell posted a 3.72 ERA with 71 strikeouts and just 15 walks.
Bell mentioned later in the season that he had been dealing with a number of mechanical issues both in Miami and during his early days as a Diamondback. His fastball was able to hit 95 with regularity again, and he was able to control it. Bell’s 2.2 BB/9 was a career low and the driver behind a career best 4.5 K/BB.
The problem was the home run ball, in large part because Bell spent 2013 pitching in a hitter’s haven for the first time in his career. Nearly one out of every five fly balls Bell allowed left the park in 2013. Eight of the 12 home runs he allowed came at home in the thin desert air of Chase Field. A return to a pitcher’s park like Tampa Bay — one with similar dimensions but without the desert-thin, distance-aiding atmospheric conditions — should help Bell return to his normal HR/FB rate of around nine percent.
If Bell allows about one home run per nine innings instead of the two he did last season, the rest of his numbers suggest an ERA in the 3.00-3.50 range (FanGraphs.com’s Steamer projections peg him for a 3.39 mark behind the same logic, without adjusting for his move to Tampa’s cavernous stadium). That’s about the kind of numbers we’d expect from somebody who still has a mid-90s fastball, a power sinker with about a 60 percent ground ball rate, and a curveball that induces whiffs on nearly two out of every five swings (11th in the league among relievers in 2013).
So yes, Heath Bell has been something of a punchline for the last two seasons. But his arsenal and the numbers they produced with Arizona suggest Tampa Bay made yet another shrewd move in snagging him in Tuesday’s trade action.