Putz Out, Bell In As Closer


As I wrote about last week, the Arizona bullpen has struggled big time. Now with the news that JJ Putz is having potentially serious elbow troubles, it looks like we’ll get a healthy dose of Heath Bell in the ninth inning. On the surface, this looks like a really big deal, but I’m not so sure it is.

Let’s start off by acknowledging how great Putz has been over the last two seasons. He’s been lights out for the majority of his time with the Diamondbacks despite a couple of rough patches. This April was one such rough patch. He’s gotten off to slow starts before and has seemingly always got rolling as the season progresses.

Perhaps JJ was about to turn it around, but we can’t ignore the fact that he’s 36 and has thrown a lot of

splitters. Those have been known to put heavy pressure on the elbow and the splitter has long been deemed one of baseball’s most unsafe pitches. In fact, some organizations even refuse to teach it to their minor leaguers.

JJ Putz leaves the game against the Dodgers. IMAGE: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Now that JJ has been diagnosed with “elbow tightness,” we have to wonder if the innings, the age and all those splitters have come back to take their toll. As Ken Rosenthal reported this morning, Putz has a sprained ligament, strained flexor muscle and an irritated nerve in that elbow. Apparently Putz will try to rehab his way back into the lineup, but it appears that surgery is looming should the rehab prove ineffective. In other words, JJ’s future as a Diamondback is in serious jeopardy and we shouldn’t assume we’ll ever see him regain his form again. Could he come back the same? Maybe, but at his age and given the severity of the injury, I’m not betting on it.

Enter Heath Bell. I, for one, did a lot of head scratching when Arizona acquired him from Miami. I was critical of Kevin Towers for taking on Bell’s contract given his age and ineffectiveness. Heath had lost velocity and his strikeout rates were were trending down, plus he didn’t have Petco Park to suppress run scoring. As we all know, the ball can fly in the desert, much more so than in his golden days with the Padres.

Bell has looked better in the desert thus far, though,  especially compared to his time as a Marlin. His velocity is slightly up, the strikeouts are way up and, most importantly, the walks are way down. His 4.40 ERA is misleading as he’s been unlucky thus far (.417 BABIP) and his FIP of 2.64 reflects this. I’d expect the his K/9 to fall a little bit and his BB/9 to rise some, but even with a little regression, he still appears to be capable of being effective as a closer.

To dig a little deeper, let’s take a look at the projections of both players going forward. Here are the ZiPS Rest of Season (ROS) projections for both pitchers: 

As you can see, the projections see them as different pitchers, but both are on the same path in terms of value. Putz and Bell would be set to accumulate 0.6 WAR over the rest of the season, they would just do so in different ways. Putz boasts a better K/BB ratio, but Bell is better at keeping the ball in the yard. Both have similar career groundball rates and both have experience closing out games. If Bell can keep his head and avoid getting rattled if and when he blows a save, there is reason to believe that we should see no major drop-off in the ninth.

Heath Bell notches a save for the Dbacks. IMAGE: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been some clamoring for David Hernandez to become the closer, but Gibby clearly prefers a veteran in that role. Hernandez is likely the future, but Bell should be able to keep him from taking over this season. The bullpen is old overall and there is sure to be a changing of the guard in the near future, as neither Bell nor Putz are long-term solutions at this point in their careers.

For now, however, we’re going to have to roll the dice with Heath Bell, but there’s hope that he can keep the Dbacks in the thick of the NL West race.