The day after the Rangers' tense, series-winning home victory against the hated Angels Angels of Anaheim, the last thing you might want to read is a BBTiA piece chock full o' worried goodness about Neftali Feliz.
So you've got two options: wait for tomorrow's piece (which might or might not be less full of worried goodness, but probably won't be about the Texas closer), or suck it up and read on.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.
This off-season, the only obvious problem Texas faced with regard to Feliz was whether to start him or keep in the bullpen. This, as an anti-hero of mine would put it, sounded like one of them good problems.
If you watched the bottom of the ninth of yesterday's game, though, you have to have the sneaking suspicion that the problems aren't sounding so good anymore. It's hard to believe you weren't thinking the same thing I was during Feliz's outing: "Where the hell's his velocity and location?!" Just about every one of the 15 fastballs Feliz threw was up in the zone, and only one registered at higher than 96 mph. Most of them were in the 92-95 mph range. And, of most concern, that's been the story of his season so far.
Of course, "his season so far" is only 12.1 innings. Then again, it's not really only 12.1 innings, is it? It's 12.1 innings plus a shoulder inflammation-driven trip to the 15-day disabled list. 12.1 innings in which Feliz's fastball has averaged 94.5 mph, as it did yesterday; that's almost two miles per hour lower than last year's mean speed. 12.1 innings in which he has yet to sling cheese faster than 97.5 mph. There were stretches in Feliz's remarkable 2010 in which the same held true -- but those were limited to two-to-three game intervals. In 2011, it's extended over all 12 of the closer's outings. In addition, Feliz's four-seamer is featuring less horizontal and vertical movement than in the previous two years. It's just not the same quality of pitch we've grown accustomed to seeing from the just-turned-23 year-old hurler.
If we look only at Feliz's results on the mound, this might seem much ado about nothing. In his dozen appearances, he's sporting a sub-0.80 ERA, has yet to be the pitcher of record, and has saved all eight games in which a save has been available. Nothing to complain about, there. And, as Pras pointed out in a stimulating post-game exchange, perhaps Feliz is deliberately dialing it back a bit. Maybe he's trying to ensure he has something left in October. Maybe he's working on command, or sequencing, or repertoire, or a combination of the three. Maybe (with the prospect of breaking 2012 in the starting rotation) he's focusing on learning to pitch, rather than simply throwing.
Still, beyond allocating five percent of his fastballs to his newfound cutter, Feliz hasn't really changed his distribution of pitches -- even as he's walked more batters (9) than he's struck out (8), and seen his swinging-strike percentage drop to 7.7 percent from the 11-12 percent of 2009-10. Coming into yesterday's game, opposing batters were making a lot of contact off his pitches in the zone (to the tune of 92.5 percent, five percent above league average). Granted, their batting average on balls in play stood at just .152, and they had (and have) yet to turn any of their (15) fly balls into a home run -- but they were also sending up infield flies at only half the rate of previous years.
As a result, before yesterday, Feliz had a 4.00 FIP ("Fielding Independent Pitching," which attempts to filter out events over which pitchers don't have much control). He had a 5.53 xFIP (which takes FIP and normalizes it for the proportion of fly balls that leave the ballpark). Neither is good; nor is his 3.79 tERA (which accounts for the types of balls hit off a pitcher).
It'd be folly to derive firm conclusions from such a small sample size, but why not go the full Ziegfeld? Something seems off, and (so it seems to me) the not entirely Feliz possibilities fall in five, not entirely mutually exclusive categories:
(1) Feliz hasn't been quite right since the start of the season, and it's just one of those transient physical things that could and does happen to any pitcher -- especially any young pitcher. It's significant enough to have affected his stuff, including his fastball velocity and location, and he'll either work through it, or he won't. Most likely, it'll be the former, and when we look back on 2011, we won't attach much weight to Feliz's first dozen starts: nothing to see here; these are not the droids you're looking for; move along, move along.
(2) Feliz hasn't been quite right since the start of the season, and it's because he's suffering the effects of 1.5 seasons of maximum-effort, fastball-featured relief pitching. Pitching on back-to-back-to-back days is a bad idea for him (as, perhaps, it was for Frank Francisco). Given the Rangers' apparent reluctance to use him even on back-to-back days, now, he's got a lingering physical issue even after his DL stint. It's affected his stuff, including his fastball velocity and location, and he'll either work through it, or he won't.
(This hypothetical, like the one that stipulates Feliz is holding something back for strategic reasons, owes a hat-tip to Pras. As a side note, there's a useful saberstudy to be done on the longevity of flame-throwing relief pitchers who rely heavily on their fastest fastball in outing after outing. It'd be difficult, since talent is a huge confounder for physical durability – but it'd be useful. Any takers?)
(3) Feliz hasn't been quite right since the start of the season, and it's because his spring fling with starting has created (or exacerbated) physical issues. These could be mechanical, I suppose, though I've read no mention of such from any source -- and while I'm anything but an expert on pitching mechanics, I guess I'll note that I haven't noticed anything that raises red flags. Justified or not, Feliz blamed his tender shoulder on the starting experiment, and if (consciously or not) he's not throwing as hard because of the injury, it's hard to ignore the potential link. In any event, it's affected his stuff, including his fastball velocity and location, and he'll either work through it, or he won't.
(4) Feliz hasn't been quite right since the start of the season, and it's because his spring fling with starting has created (or exacerbated) mental issues. They've affected his stuff, including his fastball velocity and location, and he'll either work through them, or he won't. I'm reluctant to speculate too much on this front, not least because I can't quite see a clear causal chain from Feliz's maturity (or mindset, or makeup) to the physical/statistical/peripheral issues raised above.
That said, I'd be lying if I claimed that Feliz's rehearsal of his "I'm not comfortable starting, I'm comfortable starting, I'm done with starting, OK, well, let's see what happens next season" routine with the media didn't make me wonder where, exactly, his head was. Couple that with Saturday's Washington-and-Maddux line that Feliz was too "cranky" to take the mound in a close game against the division-leading Angels, and you've got decent grounds for questioning what's going on upstairs -- with double entendre fully intended.
(5) Feliz is fine, and this 12-appearance stretch of subpar fastball velocity and location is just one of those random things that happens in baseball. It's not a matter of anything affecting his fastball velocity and location, and there's nothing to work through (or not), because he is and will be fine, and there's nothing to see here. These are not the droids you're looking for; move along, move along.
All Rangers fans would like to believe the One True Anwer is (5), or at, in answers (1) through (4), that the outcome will fall to the eithers, not the ors. It's so much more blissful to ignore Feliz's troubling start to 2011 and assume all will be well. In this case, though, ignorance could very well deliver no más Feliz. In a recent piece at Baseball Prospectus, the all-too-appropriately named Mike Fast noted that, for relievers, a loss of two miles per hour on their fastballs translated, on average, to a one earned-run increase per nine innings. More importantly, perhaps, Fast's review confirms the common-sense notion that a sustained trend of decreased velocity is a warning sign for a serious injury. Concluding his analysis, Fast notes:
Much work remains to be done before we can translate the adjusted fastball speed data into a meaningful understanding of injury prediction and the effect of speed on performance. For many of the pitchers who have lost fastball speed and suffered a drop in performance, the velocity drop may simply be symptomatic of other problems, whether a mechanical issue or a hidden injury.
Obviously, this isn't a multiple-choice quiz at the end of the semester; only time will tell if there's a real issue with Feliz's shoulder (or workload, or head -- or all three, or none of the above). For the moment, however, heavy is the head that wears the crown: there are larger concerns about the reigning AL Rookie of the Year than whether he'll successfully break into the starting rotation in 2012.