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Entries in Neftali Feliz (4)

Wednesday
Apr112012

Found: Neftali Feliz's Changeup

Neftali Feliz's career as a big league starting pitcher got off to a great start last night. The Rangers' former closer tossed seven shutout innings against the Seattle Mariners, giving up four hits, striking out four and walking two.

A starter in the Atlanta and Texas systems before moving to the 'pen in 2009, Feliz bested batters as a reliever with brute force. He unleashed his mid-to-upper-90s fastball nearly 80% of the time, occasionally breaking off a low-80s slider or very rarely an upper-80s changeup. Feliz retained his velocity well last night, averaging 94.1 mph. But, as ESPNDallas' Richard Durrett notes, Feliz relied heavily on his secondary stuff:

He threw a steady diet of fastballs early and established it, then -- when the lineup came up a second time -- Napoli had Feliz throw more off-speed stuff. Feliz's slider was in the low 80 mph range and the changeup was anywhere from 84 to 88 mph. Feliz said he can alter the speed on his changeup by a few miles per hour by tweaking his grip, something he worked on in Surprise, Ariz., this spring.

"I noticed his changeup was on," Napoli said. "We were going with it, and it was a good pitch for him tonight. That can change from night to night. That's what you've got to do as a starter. You can't just go out and throw fastballs every single time through the lineup. You've got to be able to mix it up, and he did that."

Feliz certainly did mix it up. He threw his fastball just 51% of the time, going to his slider 26% and his changeup 23%. As a reliever, he threw his changeup four only four percent of the time. Feliz's slider wasn't especially sharp, with 32% crossing the plate and the M's mostly laying off the pitch. But, facing a lineup with seven left-handed hitters, Feliz peppered the zone with his changeup:

Feliz's changeup location vs. Seattle, 4/10/12

Seventy-two percent of Feliz's changeups were in the zone, compared to 46% during his closer days. Seattle went a collective 1-for-8 against the change, with Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo punching out on the pitch. Feliz's changeup had an 8-9 mph differential from his fastball. It complemented his heater, which sat high in the zone:

Feliz's fastball location vs. Seattle, 4/10/12

It was just one start against an admittedly light-hitting lineup. Still, it's encouraging that Feliz varied his pitch selection, dusted off his changeup and showed quality control of the offering. Flinging fastballs four-fifths of the time might work in short stints, but not while facing the same hitters two or three times. Feliz already seems well aware of that, which should limit his growing pains as a starter.

Tuesday
Nov222011

Rangers Ink Nathan; Feliz to Start

Texas Rangers signed RHP Joe Nathan to a two-year, $14.5 million contract with a $9 million club option for the 2014 season.

Turning 37 today, Nathan's days as a tier-one closer are likely over. But in his first post-Tommy John season, the longtime Twinkie pitched better than his ERA would suggest. Nathan gives the Rangers a capable late-inning arm without a leviathan three or four-year commitment and allows the club to make a reliever-to-starter conversion for a third straight season by moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation.

Nathan didn't get through the 2011 season unscathed (he missed a month with a right forearm injury), and his fastball, which once consistently sat 94-95 mph, averaged a more modest 92.3 mph. His lower-octane stuff led to his first relief year in which he struck out less than a batter per inning (8.7 K/9 in 44.2 frames). However, Nathan displayed pretty good control (2.4 unintentional BB/9) and his fielding-independent numbers paint the picture of a pitcher deserving of a 4.00ish ERA instead of his actual 4.84 mark, which was the result of a very low rate of stranding base runners (64 percent, compared to a 79 percent career average).

One concern for Nathan is how his fly ball-heavy approach will play in Arlington. Nathan induced ground balls slightly under 36 percent of the time in 2011, and he served up 1.4 homers per nine innings. Like in past years, he tried to challenge hitters up in the zone with his fastball:

Nathan's fastball location, 2011

But, sitting at 92 instead of his vintage 95 mph, Nathan's fastball got hit hard:

In-play slugging percentage by location on Nathan's fastball, 2011

All seven of the homers that Nathan surrendered came on fastballs. Hitters slugged nearly .600 against the pitch, and whiffed at it less than 13 percent of the time (18 percent average for relievers). Thankfully, his breaking pitches were more effective: batters slugged a combined .220 versus Nathan's low-80s curveball and high-80s slider (.302 average for RP).

Nathan's signing means the Rangers will try to go three-for-three in converting relievers to the rotation. C.J. Wilson (who Feliz may well replace) made the jump in 2010 and Alexi Ogando did it prior to 2011, and now Feliz gets his shot. The 23-year-old righty was a starter coming up on the farm with the Braves and has long been lauded for a devastating, mid-to-upper-90s fastball. As a starter, however, he'll need to show better control (he walked 4.2 per nine unintentionally last year), dust off his breaking ball and further develop either his high-80s cutter or changeup.

As a reliever in the majors, Feliz has averaged 96.3 mph with his fastball. Not surprisingly, he has fallen in love with that pitch, throwing it about 77 percent of the time. It's arguably the best fastball among all relievers. Even though hitters guessing fastball would have been right more than three-quarters of the time, they hit .181 against the pitch and slugged .291, while also whiffing 26 percent of the time that they dared take a cut.

That fastball, even if it loses a couple ticks in extended outings, will be the center piece of his approach. But his secondary stuff needs a tune-up. Feliz has thrown his power slider for a strike less than half of the time, and his changeup also has a below-average strike rate in the mid-fifties. As he develops those pitches more in Spring Training, he could also go to a high-80s cutter that he started throwing in 2011 (green on the chart below). That pitch would give hitters something more to think about instead of just gearing up for a fastball (red) or looking for a sweeping slider (blue).

Release velocity and pitch break on Feliz's pitches, 2011

Nathan no longer hangs out in Mo Rivera/Papelbon territory, and there are concerns about how his aerial approach applies to a park that increases homers by 19 percent for lefty hitters and 14 percent for righties. Still, if his signing keeps Texas from going 3 years/$30+ million for someone like Francisco Rodriguez or Heath Bell and lets Feliz maximize his value as a starter, it's a defensible move.

Tuesday
Feb082011

Feliz to Start

The Rangers are apparently going to give Neftali Feliz a chance to start in Spring Training.  As dominant as he's been in the  closer role, his success as a starter will largely be determined by the effectiveness of his secondary pitches.  Last year, Feliz relied on his fastball 83% of the time.  Obviously, he will have to adjust his approach as you can't get by throwing that many fastballs in a starting role.

Feliz throws a curveball (often mistaken for a slider) and a changeup.  His K-Rate on his secondary pitches was around 40.4% last year, which put him into the 92nd percentile for all soft pitches thrown in the majors in 2010.  And his contact rate of 61.7% put him in the top 87th percentile.

Of course, he only threw his secondary pitches 17% of the time last year, making it more difficult for batters to identify and adjust to them in brief stints.  It will be interesting to see how Feliz changes his approach as a starter, and how effective those secondary pitches can be when utilized more often.