Thinking About Heath Bell and Neftali Feliz

According to a variety of reports, the Texas Rangers are hot and heavy after San Diego closer Heath Bell.  

Gerry Fraley talked about the possibility of trading for Bell, and the problems with Neftali Felizin an interview that the DMN has excerpts of:

 

Let's say the Rangers deal for Heath Bell. Do they hand him the closing job immediately?

Gerry Fraley: No. Let's just say they get him. The first week to 10 days, he pitches the eighth inning, which he insists he will. By all accounts, Heath Bell is a tremendous teammate. Really wants to win; he's tired of losing. But I think after about 10 days, Ron Washington can say, 'Look, Heath Bell is outpitching Neftali Feliz,' which I think would be the case. 'We're going to do what's best (for the team) not just for the one person and make a move then.' But I don't think they would do it immediately.

How significant are your questions starting to become about Neftali Feliz?

Gerry Fraley: If I'm the Rangers, they're huge. Look at last night. I think he faced six hitters. He did not get a strikeout. You have to miss bats as a closer. You have to strike people out. I don't see a strikeout pitcher in Feliz this year. Last year, he was 97 with movement. This year, he's sometimes 92-93 and with not a lot of movement. I can't speak for the man; I don't know if he's hurt. He's not the same pitcher this year; he's not blowing away hitters. He's having trouble with left-handed hitters. He's not going inside on them. I think he's a real, real concern for this team right now.

 

On the surface, that makes sense...anyone who has watched the Rangers knows that Feliz doesn't look like the Feliz of old.  His strikeouts are way down, his walks are up, and while his ERA isn't bad, his FIP is 4.58 and his xFIP is 4.78, meaning that, per fWAR, he's been sub-replacement-level this year.

Fraley does get some of the details wrong.  Feliz averaged 96.3 mph on his fastball last year, whereas this year, he's at 95.8 mph, the same velocity he had in 2009 as a rookie.  And he's not having trouble with lefthanded hitters...he's striking out 7.94 hitters per 9 versus lefties, against 2.38 walks per 9 innings.  His K rate against lefties in 2010 was 10.29 per 9, so while he's dropped some, it isn't dramatic.  

No, where we see the huge change is against righthanded hitters.  Feliz struck out 8.13 batters per 9 innings in 2010.  In 2011?  3.6 Ks/9.  Feliz has struck out only 6 of the 71 righthanders he's faced this year, while walking 14 of them -- an 8.40 BB/9 rate.  

Lefties in 2011 have a .188/.244/.338 line...he's allowed 3 homers in 87 PAs, which is high, but that's a solid line overall, and albeit not as good as the .127/.214/.195 line he posted against them in 2010.

Righthanders, though?  Rightes hit .220/.277/.339 against Feliz in 2010.  This year, Feliz is allowing a .259/.400/.407 line.  

So Feliz is worse against lefties this year than he was last year, but is much worse against righthanders.  His velocity is the same as it has been, but his command of both his fastball and his breaking ball has been erratic.*

*  Not to be alarmist, but you know what loss of command without loss of velocity is a symptom of?  I won't say it out loud, but the surgery that it requires has the initials "T.J."

So, like Fraley says, bring in Bell, and let him take over, right?

Well, here's the problem...Fraley says:

You have to miss bats as a closer. You have to strike people out. *

*  Feliz, interestingly, has a 10.2% swinging strike percentage, compared to 11.9% last year and 11.1% in 2009.   Part of the reason for that appears to be that he's eliciting swings just 46.2% of the time now, compared to 50.5% the year before, and is getting hitters to chase pitches outside the zone 31.5% of the time, compared to 33.3% of the time in 2010.  Nevertheless, the contact rate against Feliz is up, but not enough to explain the dramatic drop in strike out rates.  Feliz's issue seems to be that he's getting a lot fewer called strikes, which would seem to be the result of not being able to get his offspeed stuff over the plate.

So if we want a closer who will miss bats and strike people out, why would we want Heath Bell?

Bell's swinging strike percentage this year is 8.9%, down from the previous two years.  In fact, Feliz's 10.2% swinging strike rate this season is better than Bell's swinging strike percentage in 2011, 2009, 2008, 2006, and 2005.  Bell is striking out 6.75 batters per 9...barely better than Feliz, who is at 6.21 Ks per 9.  

So if the problem with the closer is that you need someone who misses bats and strikes someone out, what reason is there to believe, this season, than Bell is better than Feliz?

The problem with Bell's K rates has been discussed here quite a bit, and has led folks to question the Rangers' pursuit of Bell.*  

*  This highlights a dichotomy that I've noticed...the less information we have, the more likely we are to assume that the organization knows what it is doing.  Leonys Martin gets signed to a $15.5 million contract, despite questions about his hit tool, and we're on board because we trust the scouting department.  Nomar Mazara gets a record $5 million bonus from the Rangers, despite most people not considering him one of the top talents in this year's July 2 class (BA had him expected to get the 10th largest bonus of this class), and J.D. is a ninja and A.J. Preller is a genius.  But if the Rangers are pursuing Bell and willing to part with prospects to get him, they're panicking and not paying attention to Bell's numbers.  

I'm pretty sure the Rangers know Bell's strikeout rates have gone down this year.  I'm pretty sure the Rangers know that that is a huge red flag.  And yet, the team is pursuing Bell anyway.

Why?  Well, maybe their scouts say this is an aberration, that Bell is pitching as well as ever -- his velocity isn't down, but the contact rate against him is up, but maybe they feel like this is just an outlier period.  Maybe they feel like the National League hitters have become familiar with Bell and his pitching patterns and stuff, but a switch to the A.L., particularly for the two months the Rangers would have him, would give Bell a bigger edge against hitters who mostly haven't seen him.  Maybe they know that relievers have high variability over short periods, and thus are putting less weight on what Bell has done over that period.

In addition, maybe the Rangers have concerns about Feliz.  Both Ron Washington and Nolan Ryan have been critical in the last couple of days of Feliz's body language and lack of fire.  Maybe the Rangers feel like getting someone like Bell into the bullpen, someone who would challenge Feliz, would snap Feliz out of the funk he's been in all year.  Maybe they feel like, by adding Bell, they'd be getting two good relievers -- Bell and a reinvigorated Feliz -- rather than just one.

I don't know what the thinking is.  I do think the Rangers want Bell, I do know the Padres have been rumored to like Robbie Erlin (a guy who, as Professor Parks pointed out, would be a great fit for that team and that park), and it wouldn't surprise me if the Rangers couldn't get a deal done for Carlos Beltran because they would have had to part with Erlin to top the Giants' deal, and they wanted to keep Erlin as a key piece for Bell.

We'll know, one way or the other, in the next few days.  Personally, I'm not real fired up about the idea of trading for Bell, given how costly the price is going to be.  But I'm also pretty sure the Rangers have a handle on the risks, and the red flags, associated with Bell.

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