Prospect Retro: Heath Bell
One of the best major league relievers over the last three seasons has been Heath Bell, who was very strong as a setup man in '07 and '08 before taking over San Diego's closer job in '09. He wasn't highly regarded as a minor league prospect, however, so let's take a look at his background.
Bell attended Santiago Canyon Junior College and was a drafted in the 69th round by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1997. He didn't sign, and in 1998 he wasn't drafted at all. The Mets saw something, however, and picked him up as an undrafted free agent. Assigned to Kingsport in the Appalachian League, he posted a 2.54 ERA with a 61/11 K/BB in 46 innings, with 40 hits allowed. Despite his strong pitching performance, he wasn't highly-rated as a prospect by scouts. I didn't write about many short-season players back then, but would have given him a Grade C, "good numbers but need to see at higher levels" rating.
Moved up to Columbia in the South Atlantic League for 1999, Bell picked up 25 saves, with a 2.60 ERA and a 68/17 K/BB in 62 innings, with 47 hits allowed. Scouting reports indicated velocity in the 88-90 range, with a strong changeup his best pitch. I had him rated as a Grade C type, a typical minor league reliever with an okay arm, strong results against inexperienced competition, but needing more data against more experienced hitters.
Moved up to St. Lucie for 2000, he continued dominating minor league hitters with 23 saves, a 2.55 ERA, and a 75/21 K/BB in 60 innings with 43 hits allowed, very similar to what he'd done in '99. Scouting reports were still marginal. I put him in the 2001 book, writing that he was a "successful Class A closer, knows how to pitch but doesn't throw hard," relying a lot on his changeup. I wrote that he had a chance to help in the bullpen eventually if he passed the Double-A test.
He did not pass that test, posting a 6.02 ERA with a 55/19 K/BB but allowing 82 hits in 61 innings for Binghamton in 2001. At that point, he looked like a guy who had found the level of competition that he couldn't handle.
In 2002 things began to change. He picked up a bit more velocity, getting his fastball into the 90s more consistently. He also sharpened up his slider, while still showing the good changeup. He posted a 1.18 ERA with a 49/6 K/BB in 38 innings for Binghamton, followed by a 4.26 ERA with a 28/9 K/BB in 32 innings for Triple-A Norfolk. I had him back to a Grade C, but cut him from the 2003 book for space reasons and because I was excessively influenced by a negative scouting report. Baseball America was more optimistic and rated him as their 18th best Mets prospect in their '03 annual.
Returning to Norfolk for 2003, Bell posted a 4.71 ERA with a 54/8 K/BB in 50 innings with 54 hits allowed. The K/IP and K/BB were excellent, and while hittable he pitched better than the ERA indicated. I still had him as a Grade C type, and cut him from the book again since I thought he was pretty marginal. He wasn't in the '04 Baseball America book either.
Bell made us experts look bad in '04, splitting the season between Norfolk (3.23 ERA, 68/24 K/BB in 56 innings, 16 saves) and the Mets (3.33 ERA, 27/6 K/BB in 24 innings). He bounced between New York and Norfolk in '05 and '06, pitched terrifically in the minors but having some problems in the majors, with ERAs over 5.00 both seasons. However, his K/IP and K/BB marks in the majors were sharp, and in retrospect his chances to surprise were very clear. His xFIP in '05 was 3.30 vs. his ERA of 5.59 for example.
The Padres picked him up in a trade in November '06, and he's been excellent in their bullpen ever since. His major league record is 19-19 with 44 saves, 3.40 ERA, 3.19 xFIP, with a 357/112 K/BB in 349 innings, 309 hits allowed.
Bell throws harder now than he did in the minors, averaging 94 MPH over the last three seasons. Early in his career he was more in the 87-90 range, gradually increasing into the low-90s in the upper minors, up to what we see today. His curveball, slider, and changeup all rate as above-average pitches according to Fangraphs.
I don't have any particular explanation about this, other than to say that Bell was almost always very effective in the minors, even when scouts were lukewarm. He had problems when he first reached Double-A in 2001, but it turned out to be a speedbump rather than a roadblock. He went from being an undrafted free agent, to being one of the best closers in the game. This is a case where the numbers turned out to be right, and the scouts turned out to be wrong. I didn't give Bell enough credit myself.