Is Neftali Feliz’ Job In Danger?

By Eriq Gardner //

Texas Rangers pitcher Neftali Feliz loses his job. No, let’s try this again: Texas Rangers closer Neftali Feliz placed on the 15-day DL. OK, one more time: In stunner, Texas Rangers demote Neftali Feliz to the minor leagues.

None of these events have yet happened, of course, but after the Rangers flame-thrower imploded in the ninth inning on Saturday night, allowing three runs and blowing his sixth save of the season, all of these scenarios are indeed imaginable. Especially, now that the Rangers’ bullpen have fresh new ninth-inning options in Mike Adams and Koji Uehara.

Frankly, it’s hard to make a case that Feliz doesn’t belong in the minor leagues right now.

Forget the ERA and the save conversion rate.

Instead, check out the dwindling strikeout rate — 9.22 K/9 in 2010, 6.21 K/9 in 2011.  And take head of the increasing walk rate — 2.34 BB/9 in 2010, 4.29 BB in 2011.

Worse yet, is Feliz’ dismal (yet, lucky) performance against  right-handed batters this season. On the surface, he’s holding right-handed batters to a .222 batting average, which seems pretty good, until one considers his strikeout rate versus righties (3.03) and walk rate versus righties (7.13) amounts to a “luck neutralized” ERA against righties somewhere between 5.3 and 6.7.  Somewhere out there, Barry Zito is blushing.

So what’s the problem?

There’s been a lot of theories bandied about, including over-usage dating back to the Rangers’ “starter” experiment this spring, hidden injuries, mental problems, or simple bad luck.

Here’s our interpretation of the data:

The problem doesn’t seem to be velocity-related as his fastball still averages around 96 MPH, about where he was at last season. Nor bad luck, as he’s actually be on the fortunate end of things, considering his .242 batting-average-on-balls-in-play this season.

Instead, Feliz looks to have lost command (or confidence) of pitch location. The batters he faces swing less at Feliz pitches. As a result, Feliz is getting behind in counts, leading the pitcher to groove his heater down the middle of the plate instead of at the corners. His top fastball remains a tough pitch for batters to make great contact, but even weak contact — enough of it — will eventually get the ball into defensive gaps.

In short, he’s still a good pitcher whose immense talent is helping him overperform his peripherals, but he can’t be a great pitcher again until he regains that confidence and command. And right now, the ninth inning seems like a poor forum for that to happen.

The Rangers organization is a pretty smart one. They’ll see this soon enough. Adjust course accordingly.

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