"[This] could be the [Neftali] Feliz that we get the rest of the way ... and if that ends up being the outcome, then we're irreversibly headed towards our second full-blown closer controversy in the last 18 months." - May 19th, after a disastrous blown save in Kansas City the previous night
Well, here we are. Baseball giveth generously, and then baseball taketh away cruelly and without remorse. There was a time not so very long ago when a late-inning 9-8 loss would have not only been par for the course for the Rangers, but would have also elicited something much closer to a collective ho-hum-well-that's-nothing-new from the fan base than the emotional outpouring that tends to surface after such games nowadays. That's very much a good thing for any person who derives benefit or pleasure from the Rangers doing well, but I sometimes wonder about what it all does to inhibit the thought processes of otherwise rational people ... myself included.
In the month's worth of games leading up to last night's series of unfortunate events, Neftali Feliz had recorded 9.1 innings over 11 separate appearances while allowing three runs (only two earned) on four hits and four walks against seven strikeouts. Opposing batters mustered only a .143/.250/.143 showing against Feliz, who yielded no home runs and posted the ninth-highest swinging-strike rate (15.6 percent) out of 73 qualifying American League relievers in that span. The fastball averaged 96.5 mph (a figure more in line with the velocity on his heater last season), with the pitch itself grading out as one of the better heaters thrown by a reliever in the game during that stretch.
Oh, sure, there are the standard sample-size caveats in play here, and that strikeout-to-walk ratio is nothing laudable, but the point I'm trying to make here is that Feliz, in the month leading up to last night, had obtained substantially better results since the June 22nd meltdown against Houston. Perhaps it still wasn't the Feliz that had seduced so many of us for the better part of 2009-10, but it was better. It was above average, if not elite. There was value there, at the very least.
And now, we have last night -- a night where Feliz was responsible for the second-worst single-game win probability total (-.727 WPA) of his major league career, where he allowed two runs on three hits and a walk while retiring only one batter, and where the Rangers went into the ninth inning up one run and exited down one run. That, in turn, has produced a reborn groundswell of public discontent and rage after a month of relative prosperity, with more than a few wondering if Feliz's latest misstep will escalate the Padres' asking price on Heath Bell and/or engender desperation in the Rangers' front office, if Bell could then end up usurping Feliz as the closer by season's end (actually, I brought that one forth), and so on and so forth. And I get that, I guess.
Here's the thing, though -- upon a second, more intensive viewing of the ninth inning in question, there's little doubt in my mind that the Feliz of last night, troubled as he might have been, was well ahead of the Feliz that imploded on May 19th, or on June 22nd. He missed on a few fastballs that were rocketed by Jim Thome and Joe Mauer, got away with a few others, and saw his command completely disappear on the walk to Ben Revere, which proved to be his last at-bat of the night ... but he wasn't a disaster. The command wasn't as consistent as it needed to be, and the confidence in the breaking ball clearly wasn't there (as evinced by his fairly quick abandonment of the pitch), and those were both big problems ... but it wasn't a disaster, or at least not a disaster on the scale of what Feliz was at one point this year.
Now, of course, this really doesn't bring us any closer to answering the question of what is at the heart of the erosion in his performance this year compared to 2009-10, but I have my doubts as to how accurately any of us can really answer that question. I am reasonably confident that we're not looking at the injury-compromised results of a hurting pitcher, but beyond that, I don't have all that many answers. There's something there that's inhibiting his command, and, unfortunately, I think you'd have a difficult time arguing that his non-fastball pitches have moved forward all that much, so we have a good idea of what's holding him back on the surface. What we don't know so much is why the command has been so sporadic, and why the development in his arsenal has stalled. I'm open to input on what's going on here, even if it's all terribly speculative at its core.
The likelihood is that the Rangers will pull the trigger on some kind of deal for bullpen help in the next couple of days, and if Feliz devolves once more into his horrendous early-season form, I think there's a decent chance that he cedes the closer's role to the newcomer by regular season's end. With that said, however, I don't want to be too quick to jump to the conclusion that last night's performance wholly negates the otherwise decent month of work that led up to it, and I certainly don't want to jump to the conclusion that Texas is going to make a trade motivated by panic and substantially overpay in terms for Heath Bell. The Rangers know how to emotionally divorce themselves from the individual games and make rational decisions based on the bigger picture... and that's something that we're not always so great at pulling off.