Recently, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Short Season-A affiliate, the Hudson Valley Renegades, announced that they hired Rob Bell to join their front office as a Sales Account Representative. Bell, only 36, joins the Renegades after a 7-year career in the major leagues, including three with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, that ended in 2007, and with Bell’s name in the news, it’s the perfect time to take a look at his quite interesting foray into professional baseball.
Bell was the Atlanta Braves‘ 3rd round selection in the 1995 MLB Draft out of Central High School in Marlboro, New York, but his career did not get off to the type of start he would have liked. In 24 starts and 2 relief appearances between Rookie ball and Short Season-A in 1995 and 1996, Bell’s ERA was just 5.63. But even as his ERA stayed exorbitantly high, his strikeout to walk ratio was a nice 107-43, inspiring hope that Bell would find a way to get on track. And the following season, Bell finally put it all together. Heading to full-season ball for the first time as a member of the Braves’ Low-A Macon affiliate in 1997, something clicked for Bell as he delivered a breakthrough season, going 14-7 with a 3.68 ERA and a 140-41 strikeout to walk ratio in 27 starts and 146.2 innings pitched. He proved it was no fluke the following year as he went just 7-9 at High-A Danvile but with a 3.28 ERA and a ridiculous 197-46 strikeout to walk ratio in 28 starts and 178.1 innings pitched, and suddenly evaluators were convinced he was an ace in the making. Bell had filled out his projectable 6’5″ frame, and in the process his fastball from the high-80′s to the 90-93 MPH range. Bell did an outstanding job throwing his fastball for strikes, and pairing it with his best pitch, a dynamic curveball, and a solid changeup made it look like the sky was the limit for Bell on the mound.
That offseason, the Braves coveted Cincinnati Reds second baseman Bret Boone and were going to do whatever it took to make a deal happen. They were willing to dangle starter Denny Neagle, who had gone 65-33 with a 3.35 ERA in the previous four years and just two seasons earlier had gone 20-5 with a 2.97 ERA. But that wasn’t enough to make a deal happen- the Reds wanted Rob Bell. After tons of deliberation, the Braves gritted their teeth and let Bell go, and the Reds were ecstatic to get him, with GM Jim Bowden calling him the key to the deal. The expectations would be high on the 22 year old Bell, but the Reds were confident that he would be able to come through.
Bell’s debut season in the Reds organization in 1999 did not go as planned as he missed more than half the year with an elbow injury that did not require surgery. But when he was on the mound, he pitched well, going just 3-6 but with a 3.12 ERA and a 68-17 strikeout to walk ratio in 12 starts and 72 innings pitched, and he was still on the fast-track to the major leagues. And after a huge spring training, Bell began the year as a member of the Reds’ rotation. His big league debut was about as good as he could have possibly hoped as he went 7 strong innings allowing just 1 earned run, striking out 9 while walking 2. He couldn’t come close to keeping up that level of performance, but on June 2nd, through 11 big league starts, he was 4-3 with a 4.20 ERA and a 51-26 strikeout to walk ratio in 60 innings pitched. But then suddenly everything completely fell apart for Bell. In his next 4 starts, he allowed 16 runs in 15 innings, and that was enough for the Reds to send him back down to Triple-A with his ERA in the big leagues at 5.28. He returned to the majors on July 30th and pitched halfway-decently down the stretch, going 3-2 with a 4.68 ERA and a 53-31 strikeout to walk ratio in his final 11 starts. If you take out one disaster start, he actually managed a 4.08 ERA, and he had several extremely encouraging games including a complete game against the Cubs. On the year, his numbers were not so pretty, but he certainly could have done worse. He went 7-8 with a 5.00 ERA, but actually a 95 ERA+, only 5% below average, because he was pitching in a hitter’s ballpark in the height of the steroids era. His 112-73 strikeout to walk ratio in 140.1 innings pitched wasn’t good, but 6 of the walks were intentional and he was a rookie bound to improve. The scariest thing was that he allowed 32 home runs at a scary rate of 2.1 per 9 innings- Bell clearly had a ton of work to do. But he had survived his first major league season and the Reds hoped better things were ahead. Unfortunately, they were not.
Bell was traded to the Texas Rangers in June of 2001 for spare outfielder Ruben Mateo and a Rookie ball third baseman named Edwin Encarnacion (now, of course, the slugger for the Blue Jays), and between 2001 and 2002 for the Reds and Rangers, Bell’s ERA was a scary 6.50 in 243.2 innings pitched as he continued to allow an insane amount of home runs, 1.8 per 9 innings. After the Rangers released him, the Devil Rays picked him up and things were not much better for him in 2003 as his ERA stayed exorbitantly high at 5.52 in 101 IP. But the following season, he finally found something and came up with his best year in the major leagues, going 8-8 with a 4.46 ERA (101 ERA+), a 57-41 strikeout to walk ratio, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 123 innings pitched. He ended the season on an especially high note, holding the Detroit Tigers to just an unearned run as he dominated them to the tune of a complete-game 4-hitter. But that would be the final great moment of his career. He was released by the Devil Rays as he managed just an 8.28 ERA in 8 appearances in 2005, and his major career finished with a 5.90 ERA in 30 relief appearances with the Orioles in 2007 before he retired in 2008.
Rob Bell had a ton of potential- but there were clear flaws that prevented him from even coming close to reaching his upside. He threw his fastball for a lot of strikes, but could not find a way to consistently keep in down, leading to a ton of home runs. He threw a good curveball, but injuries slowly sapped his feel for it, and even when it was on, he could’t use his fastball well enough to set it up. And his third pitch, his changeup, never really came around, making Bell a two-pitch pitcher with only one pitch he could really trust. Bell’s claim to fame now is that he was the centerpiece of a trade for a slugger of the past, Bret Boone, and a slugger of the present, Edwin Encarnacion, fitting given how many home runs he gave up. He did give up a lot of home runs, but he has also given a ton to his community working with organizations like Big Brothers & Big Sisters and Habitat for Humanity, and hopefully he’ll be able to continue to stay involved with charitable efforts as a part of the Renegades. Good luck to Bell continuing his baseball career in the Renegades’ front office and hopefully helping Hudson Valley follow up a championship season in 2012 with another big year.