The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Batch five hundred thirty-seven — no, wait, it’s just batch five, the rest of that was my daughter’s drawing — of my completist series features a pair of hard-throwing relievers who took a long time to get a shot at the majors, and even longer to become closers. Not much went right for either of them as Mets, and by the time they crossed paths in Arizona, both had seen better days, but somewhere in the middle of all of that, they became All-Stars. We could quibble as to whether they should be on this ballot, but why not celebrate two guys who made the most of their relatively brief careers?
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It took Heath Bell until he was nearly 27 years old to reach the majors, and he turned 31 before he claimed the closer’s job. Big-bodied (6-foot-3 and as much as 275 pounds) and with a big personality, he radiated joy on his best days, showing his exuberance with his signature sprints to the mound, making three straight All-Star teams, converting 41 straight save opportunities at one point, and netting a big deal in free agency — not too bad for a guy who was a 69th-round draft pick by the Devil Rays.
Born on September 29, 1977 in Oceanside, California, Bell inherited his love of baseball from his father, a Marine-turned-auto mechanic who played in an adult league. Bell was not exactly a prospect; his Tustin High School coach didn’t think he would pitch in college, and his coach at Santiago Canyon College was similarly pessimistic about his major league chances. The expansion Devil Rays — who would not begin major league play until 1998 — drafted Bell in the 69th round in 1997; only three teams were still making selections at that point, but Tampa Bay, which needed to stock its farm system, kept going through the 92nd round. Bell didn’t sign with them, however, and wasn’t drafted the following year, but he did sign with the Mets as an amateur free agent.
A reliever from the outset of his professional carer, Bell made slow progress through the Mets system despite healthy strikeout and walk rates. By 2001, he reached Double-A, but he spent the better part of four seasons in the high minors before getting called up. He debuted on August 24, 2004, 35 days shy of his 27th birthday, with two scoreless innings against the Padres, notching strikeouts of David Wells, Brian Giles, and Ryan Klesko. He made 17 appearances for the Mets that season, pitching to a 3.33 ERA and 4.24 FIP, but he scuffled in each of the next two seasons, producing a combined 5.38 ERA and 3.51 FIP in 83.2 innings while bouncing between Triple-A and the majors.
Bell’s big break came on November 15, 2006, when he and lefty reliever Royce Ring were traded to the Padres for reliever Jon Adkins and outfielder Ben Johnson; the other three players in the trade combined to play 25 games for their new teams. Bell, taking advantage of spacious, pitcher-friendly Petco Park, made 25 appearances for the Padres by the end of May, by which point he had emerged as the team’s top setup option in front of Trevor Hoffman. With a fastball that he could dial up to 98 mph, Bell struck out 102 in 93.2 innings (both tops among all relievers) while delivering a 2.02 ERA and 2.50 FIP; his 3.3 WAR ranked second among NL relievers behind only Takashi Saito. Though less successful in 2008 (3.58 ERA in 78 innings), he showed enough for the Padres to entrust the closer job to him after Hoffman — at that point the all-time saves leader — left for the Brewers in free agency.
After slimming down from 275 pounds to 245, Bell had little trouble filling the shoes of Hoffman, converting his first 14 save opportunities and finishing with a league-high 42 while posting a 2.71 ERA and 2.42 FIP in 69.2 innings. He made his first of three-straight All-Star teams, but was even better in 2010, with 47 saves, a 1.93 ERA, and 2.05 FIP. He blew just three save chances, the last of them on May 26; by converting his final 34 saves of the 2010 season and his first seven of the following season, he tied Hoffman for the franchise record and the fourth-longest streak to that point, though he blew his next opportunity.
Bell pitched his way onto the All-Star team, and when called into the game at Chase Field, made an entrance for the ages before retiring the only batter he faced, Jhonny Peralta, via a popup:
He finished that year with 43 saves and a 2.44 ERA, then in December parlayed his run of success with the Padres into a three-year, $27 million deal from the Marlins, who were spending big while rebranding themselves as they moved into their new ballpark; in the days after signing him, the team added José Reyes and Mark Buehrle via free agency as well. Things did not go well in Miami, however. Bell blew four of his first seven save chances, lost the closer’s job by the All-Star break, by which time he was just 19-for-25 in save chances, and finished with a 5.09 ERA and -0.4 WAR while also feuding with manager Ozzie Guillen. On October 20, with the postseason still ongoing, he was traded to the Diamondbacks — whose general manager, Kevin Towers, had traded for Bell as the Padres’ GM — as part of a three-team deal that also involved the A’s, with the Marlins eating $8 million of the remaining $21 million.
Though Bell struck out 72 and walked just 16 in 65.2 innings for Arizona in 2013, he served up 12 home runs, and was again below replacement level. In December 2013, he was part of another three-team trade, this one involving the Reds and Rays. Bell had come full circle, finally pitching for the team that first drafted him… but only for 17.1 innings into early May, as he delivered a sky-high 7.27 ERA. The Rays released him, and he spent brief stints toiling for the Triple-A affiliates of the Orioles and Yankees, but didn’t pitch well enough to get another call, and was unsuccessful in a bid to make the Nationals the following spring.
Like Bell, J.J. Putz was a late bloomer. The hard-throwing 6-foot-5 righty didn’t reach the majors until age 26, and didn’t take over full-time closer duties until age 29, but once he did, he emerged as one of the league’s elite, making an All-Star team. He reached the 50-inning threshold just seven times in a 12-year career due to recurrent elbow problems and other injuries, but when healthy, he was generally among the majors’ best; among relievers with 300 innings form 2006-13, his 2.74 FIP ranked fourth, his 12.4 WAR sixth, and his 2.64 ERA 10th.
Born on February 22, 1977 in Trenton, Michigan, Joseph Jason Putz (pronounced like “puts,” not “putts”) began playing baseball around age seven. “Oddly enough, I was a catcher,” he recalled in 2012. “I was not a good hitter.” His travel ball coach encouraged him to pitch, and things clicked. In high school, Putz starred in football and basketball as well as baseball, and he continued to catch when he wasn’t pitching. He went 15-0 in each of his junior and senior seasons, leading Trenton High School to a state championship in 1994 while posting a 0.50 ERA with 142 strikeouts and 20 hits allowed in 80 innings. As a senior in 1995, he was selected as Michigan’s “Mr. Baseball” in 1995. Heavily recruited by colleges, he chose a full scholarship to the University of Michigan — where he played under former major leaguers Bill Freehan and Geoff Zahn – over a chance to sign with the White Sox when they made him a third-round pick in 1995.
Putz’s draft stock fell during his time at Michigan, in part due to a torn meniscus suffered during his junior year; the Twins drafted him in the 17th round in 1998, but he returned for his senior season. Baseball America wrote in 1999 that “he lacked maturity and underachieved. Even in workouts before the start of the 1999 season, Putz threw no harder than 81-82 mph,” but after boosting his velocity to 92-94 mph, he was chosen in the sixth round by the Mariners.
Aside from Putz’s abbreviated first professional season, the Mariners worked him as a starter in the minors, reworking his mechanics out of concern for the stress he put on his shoulder and elbow. He transitioned to the bullpen during his second go-round at Triple-A Tacoma in 2003, and got a brief taste of the majors that year, debuting on August 11 against the Blue Jays, with a strikeout of Vernon Wells highlighting his 1.2 innings of scoreless relief. He returned to make two mid-September appearances, and after yo-yoing between Tacoma and Seattle the following April, caught on for good near the end of the month. Though he served up far too many homers (10 in 63 innings), he took over closer duties in August when Eddie Guardado was sidelined by a rotator cuff strain. He notched nine saves but finished with a 4.71 ERA and 5.00 FIP.
Back in a setup role in front of Guardado, Putz improved somewhat in 2005 (3.60 ERA, 4.50 FIP) thanks to added fastball velocity (94.8 mph, up from 93.2 in ’04), then took a major step forward in ’06. At Guardado’s suggestion, Putz made a slight grip adjustment on his split-fingered fastball, and gained much greater control of the pitch while adding another tick to his four-seamer — then took Everyday Eddie’s closer job when he struggled through the season’s first month. Guardado was traded to the Reds in July, but he left a big impression.
“Eddie was kind of a big brother to me and took me under his wing,” Putz said following the season. “More than anything, he taught me to take care of the mental side of this job. You’re not going to succeed every time out, even though you’d like to. If you don’t have a short-term memory, this job will eat you alive.”
Putz finished the 2006 season with 36 saves, a 2.30 ERA, and a sterling 1.73 FIP (second among all relievers with 50 innings pitched) thanks to a 103-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 78.1 innings, good for 2.8 WAR. After signing a three-year, $13.1 million extension that winter, he improved to 4.0 WAR and 40 saves in 2007 (both good for second in the AL) on the strength of a microscopic 1.38 ERA (but a 2.67 FIP), and made his lone All-Star team.
Putz’s 2008 didn’t go so well. Three pitches into his first outing, he felt a sharp pain in his right rib cage; he was suffering from costochondritis (inflamed cartilage at the attachment to a rib). He missed about three weeks, then lost over five weeks in June and July to a bout of triceps tendon inflammation and ulnar neuritis. His walks per nine more than tripled, his ERA ballooned to 3.88, his WAR fell to 0.6. Things went from bad to worse after he was part of a three-way, 12-player December trade involving the Mets and Indians. Expected to set up for incoming free agent Francisco Rodriguez, he managed just 29.1 innings of 5.22 ERA work before bone chips and bone spurs sent him to the operating table in June. While rehabbing, he experienced forearm soreness and was discovered to have a partial UCL tear and new fraying in his flexor mass.
Putz didn’t need another surgery, thankfully, and after the Mets declined his $9.1 million option, he signed with the White Sox and pitched reasonably well in a setup capacity (2.83 ERA, 2.52 FIP in 54 innings) despite missing time due to patellar tendinitis. That season netted him a two-year, $10 million deal from the Diamondbacks, over the course of which which he totaled 77 saves and 2.8 WAR while posting a 2.48 ERA and 2.46 FIP. Even so, the team had to handle him with care; he threw just 112.1 innings over those two years, missing nearly four weeks with elbow inflammation in 2011.
The Diamondbacks picked up Putz’s $6.5 million option for 2013, and soon extended him for another year at $7 million, but between a UCL sprain… and another bout of ulnar neuritis… and a dislocated pinky… and a forearm strain, he threw just 48 innings before being released in late June, 2014. At 37 years old, he had thrown his final pitch. He joined the Diamondbacks’ front office that winter as a special assistant to club president/CEO Derrick Hall, and is still serving in that capacity.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.