To say the least, closer (opener?) Heath Bell was central to the Marlins' crushing 5-4 loss to the Astros on Saturday night.
Bell took the ball for ninth with a 4-1 lead and then proceeded to give up four runs on four hits before being yanked in favor of Randy Choate. Bell's 2012 ERA now stands at a year-appropriate 12.00. Also worth noting is that each of Bell's two blown saves this season has cost Carlos Zambrano a win. (Suffice it to say, Bell should not dress up as a Gatorade cooler until he's on steadier footing with the volatile -- and large -- right-hander.)
Seemingly, this should be surprising stuff. After all, Bell is coming off a 2011 campaign in which he posted a 2.44 ERA and made his third straight All-Star appearance. And on the strength of that resume, the Marlins, no longer feigning impoverishment since taxpayers had already bought them a ballpark, lavished him in a $27-million contract.
If you peer a bit more deeply, though, it's not hard to find signs of decline. First and foremost, Bell's strikeout rate went off the cliff last season: it dropped from an excellent 11.1 in 2010 to a rather pedestrian (pedestrian by closer's standards, anyway) 7.3 last season. While Bell's control improved, you don't really want a closer who's trending in a "pitch to contact" direction. In what's probably a related matter, Bell also lost some movement on his fastball and curveball last season.
Mostly, though, a 34-year-old closer with a cratering K rate is not a good bet for sustained success. While Bell quite obviously isn't as bad as he's been thus far in 2012, neither is he likely to repeat his prior levels of excellence.
All in all, there's good reason to believe that Bell is no longer a shutdown closer, even if he's being paid like one.