Bell takes 'best shape of my life' notion seriously this spring
Well-traveled veteran righty slimmed down in offseason, hopes to prove himself to Nats
VIERA, Fla. -- Heath Bell was dropping his 5-year-old son to play at a friend's house when a conversation with that friend's dad made him consider something he had not done in years.
"He was doing a triathlon, so you know, why not try and do it?" Bell said with a laugh. "It wasn't as fun as I thought it was.
"But it was really fun training for it."
Bell was one of the early Nationals to arrive Wednesday, a day before the club's pitchers and catchers were set to report, and he tossed batting practice to two of his sons in the cages. He was noticeably thinner, prompting someone nearby to say, "I honestly had no idea that was Heath Bell."
Many players will report to Spring Training during the next few days and boast of being in the proverbial best shape of their life. Bell says he has dropped nearly 40 pounds this offseason; however, he is not sure how that will translate to his performance on the field.
"I've always wanted to be in really good shape," he said, "but the thing is the last couple years, my best pitching weight and when I threw the hardest was a certain weight, and I'm way down from that."
Bell joked that his genetics probably served him better to become a football player. The most successful seasons of his career have come near or above 250 pounds, and the last time he decided to drop a significant amount of weight was during his second year in the Majors, in 2005 with the Mets. Bell finished that season with a 5.59 ERA in 42 appearances.
So why the decision to drop the weight this past offseason?
"I wanted to come into camp, and it was kind of like, 'Man, he works his butt off,'" Bell said. "I mean, I still have to get people out. Everybody's always said, 'The weight's an issue if he's not pitching well,' and it's like, 'No, I've always been one of the hardest workers on the team.'"
Bell wants to show that to the Nats, who signed him to a Minor League contract in December with an invite to Spring Training to compete for a job. As a free agent at age 37, Bell figured he would sign a similar deal with someone, but much closer to the beginning of February, when teams were working on finalizing their roster.
"I didn't even think a team like this would be interested in me," Bell said. "A team that has a chance at winning the World Series. … Thought it was more of the rebuilding team that wanted a veteran guy in the mix."
When Bell lost the weight 10 years ago, he said he did it the wrong way: barely eating anything besides granola bars and oatmeal while doing a lot of cardio, which included rollerblading to the stadium.
Bell got his offseason started early last year after a disappointing stint with the Rays in 2014. He allowed 14 earned runs in 17 1/3 innings, and his last appearance was on May 3, before he spent the rest of his offseason at home with his family.
Now Bell says he is eating more healthy, sticking to the Paleo diet, which cuts out grains and sugar. Bell, along with fellow Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, began working out with Todd Durkin -- a trainer based in San Diego who has worked with pitchers such as the Phillies' Cole Hamels, former Cub Mark Prior and the D-backs' Trevor Cahill -- in December, focusing on core strength, balance and shoulder workouts.
In addition to working out with Durkin, Bell continued to train like an athlete competing in a triathlon. He would wake up at 5:40 a.m. to go to the gym and swim for 45 minutes before starting a spin cycle session. Bell would finish in time to have breakfast with his four children, and then he would go outside for a run.
"Sometimes I have to slow him down and tell him not to do so much," Durkin said. "He will go out and run seven miles after he's done working out. That's not always a good thing. Heath's mindset is, 'The more, the better.' That's an anomaly."
Durkin laughed and described Bell as his only client willing to train for a triathlon in his free time after he finished regular training. This offseason, Bell finished two triathlons.
"I really feel like I'm one of those guys that weight helped me throw harder," Bell said. "I'm hoping that it doesn't hurt me this year."