PHOENIX — Heath Bell knows how to make an entrance.
He slid into the mound when arriving for his appearance in the 2011 All-Star Game at Chase Field, the first pitcher in, oh, ever to do that. He attended his first function as a Diamondback, a golf outing for charity Friday, in a purple-and-pink argyle sweater and socks, winning the Billy Casper lookalike contest in a landslide. The plus-fours should have been a tip-off.
Bell is resolutely positive as he enters his first season in Arizona.
He does not want to waste his breath talking about 2012, and who can blame him? Miami paraded Bell around like a combination savior/showhorse at the winter meetings after signing him to a three-year, $27 million contract last year, and manager Ozzie Guillen then took the closer’s job away from Bell a month into the season after an atypically rough beginning, equating a small sample size with a big deal. It all led to Bell’s worst year, a 4-5 record with 19 saves and a 5.09 ERA — not that it scared off the D-backs.
“I think it was a little bit of a culture shock and a change of scenery that did not work,” D-backs president/CEO Derrick Hall said. “It is well-known that he and his manager did not see eye to eye. The expectations being so high, it was just a lot to ask of him at a time where there was a lot of pressure on him.”
Bell also knows how to finish, and after seasons of 42, 47 and 43 saves in San Diego from 2009-11, he is ready to rebound in a setup role this season.
“Every great player has a down year, and it’s really how you react the next year,” he said.
“My dad always taught me to learn at least one thing from every single person because it will make you that much better and that much stronger. I’ve learned a lot (in 2012). I learned a lot about myself and how to go about things in the good times and the bad times. I think I’m that much stronger physically, mentally and spiritually.”
D-backs general manager Kevin Towers believes the numbers he saw on the radar gun late last season, not the ERA. Bell’s fastball was clocked in the mid-90s when the Marlins visited the D-backs in late August, and pro scout Todd Greene reported that the velocity remained in the 92-96 mph range the rest of the year. Results followed. Bell had a 1.50 ERA in September, giving up two runs in 12 innings while holding opponents to a .171 batting average.
“As well as I know him … the velocity is still good and he still has the good rotation on the breaking ball. With a change of scenery and getting back hopefully into a comfortable environment, I think he’ll be strong,” Towers said.
“I don’t think there is a lot you have to do as far as tweaking where he is at. I think it is just getting back to where he was at before and challenging hitters, throwing to contact, going right after them.”
Towers knows Bell as well as anyone. Towers first identified Bell in the winter of 2006, acquiring him from the New York Mets in one of his savviest deals. Bell had a 2.02 ERA in 81 games in 2007, working his way from a sixth-inning role into a setup man for Trevor Hoffman. His became the closer when Hoffman signed with Milwaukee in 2009, and his big seasons made him a hot free-agent commodity last winter, when San Diego did not want to offer more than two years.
Bell, who credits Towers with his career, said he learned a valuable lesson during the free-agent process.
“What I say to the free agents out there is, ‘Really listen to your wife.’ It’s that simple. If your wife has a bad feeling or doesn’t like somewhere or really wants something, listen to her. Happy wife, happy life,” said Bell, 35.
Bell is happy again, even with a new role following four years of closing. He will be primarily a setup man in front of closer J.J. Putz in what could be one of the deepest bullpens in the majors. David Hernandez has shown closer ability when filling in for Putz the last two seasons, and Brad Ziegler had his best year in 2012 in a seventh-inning role.
“I know J.J. is our ninth-inning guy, but whatever they tell me to do, I’m going to go out and do it to the best of my ability. My role is, when the phone rings and my name is called, go out and get as many guys out until they pull me out of the game. I’m not going to let up one bit,” Bell said.
Said Towers: “He won’t be in as many high-leverage situations at the back of the game as he was last year, and hopefully he’ll get back into that comfort zone like he had in San Diego and was pitching the seventh and eighth and very successful in setting up Trevor (Hoffman).”
Bell said he sees some similarities in the career paths he and Putz have taken.
“He’s a tremendous closer. If you look at his career, he kind of struggled, too. He left Seattle, went to New York, got hurt. Fortunately I didn’t get hurt. Then he went to the White Sox and here and dominated. Hopefully I can do the same,” Bell said.
“I just want somebody to give me a chance. I think ‘K.T.’ did that in the past, and he’s doing that this year. I’m not going to let him down.”