With the news of Heath Bell signing with Miami for 3 years/$27 million, some Phillies fans who were unhappy with Jonathan Papelbon's 4 year/$50 million contract are likely going to be wildly upset about the huge difference between the contract values. And it's understandable; the last time a reliever was paid $12.5 million a year, he blew 11 saves in one season and then spent half of the next two on the DL. But, is the gap between the two contracts (and more specifically their AAVs) as wide as we think? A little research shows that it might not be as off-the-wall as it initially appears...
Over the course of their careers, Bell and Papelbon have shown themselves to be two very different pitchers. Papelbon is a prototypical hard-throwing, high-strikeout flyball pitcher who relies mostly on a 4-seam fastball which he complements with an excellent splitter and the occasional slider. Bell is more of a groundball pitcher but still has solid strikeout numbers who also relies on a 4-seamer but complements it with a solid curveball and (very rarely) straight change-up. However, in spite of these differences, both pitchers have been close to equally effective over the last few seasons. Papelbon, who's been dominant since his rookie season, has saved 219 games and posted 14.7 fWAR since 2006. Bell was a little bit slower to develop as a reliever with the Mets, but he found himself after being traded to the Padres, and since he took over the closer role in Trevor Hoffman's stead, he's been one of the most dominant closers in the game, saving 132 games and posting 4.9 fWAR from 2009-2011. Both Bell and Papelbon have also proven to be successful pitchers with regards to all their periphery stats, with the two of them sporting career xFIPs of 3.20 and 3.09 respectively.
When you look at the overall career numbers, it certainly seems like the Marlins made the deal of the century with Bell, who put up a 2.44 ERA and 43/48 SVO in 62.2 IP, compared to the contract the Phillies gave Papelbon. However, if Bell puts up peripheral stats similar to 2011 next year, you can bet that he will not be as successful as he was this past season. This year was arguably Bell's worst year as a pitcher since his trade to the Padres, and certainly his worst season as a closer. The season saw him post below-average figures in K/9 (7.32 vs. career 9.22), GB% (43.3% vs. career 48.3%), FB% (35.4% vs. career 31.8%), and BABIP (.261 vs. career .301). His xFIP for the year was 3.67, noticeably higher than his marks of 2.97 and 2.98 in the previous two years as closer. Papelbon, on the other hand, had one of his best years as a pitcher in 2011. Even though his ERA was higher than Bell's at 2.94, and he only saved 31/34 games in 63 IP, he posted his second highest K/9 rate (12.17 vs. career 10.67), his second lowest BB/9 (1.40 vs. career 2.41) and HR/9 (.42 vs. career .65), all while sporting a BABIP of .309, well above his career mark of .275. His xFIP on the season was a miniscule 2.16, much lower than his career 3.09 mark.
Now none of this is to say that we paid the price we should have for Papelbon, because we certainly paid far more than any reliever short of number 42 should ever be paid. But, when you compare Papelbon to Bell, who is widely considered one of the best closers in the game right now, it appears that Papelbon is better suited to continue his run of success, at least over the next couple years. Of course, 2011 could be an aberration and we could see Papelbon and Bell regress to the mean in the coming season. But as it stands right now, Jonathan Papelbon is a much better pitcher than Heath Bell, making the large gap between Bell's contract and Papelbon's contract not quite as crazy as some of us want to make it out to be.