"We kind of noticed his changeup was on and we were going with it and it was good pitch for him tonight."-- Mike Napoli.
Neftali Feliz with a killer changeup: Nothing that happens this Rangers season will surprise me more.
From the first time I saw Neftali Feliz pitch in Frisco, I pegged him as a closer and I never did see anything that made me question my initial impression. In every debate with every friend or colleague on the topic of Feliz's future, I insisted that he would never be a quality MLB starter.
One of my biggest Ranger questions coming into 2012 was when (not if) Scott Feldman would take Feliz's spot at the back of the rotation.
My doubts about Feliz's ability to succeed as a starter in 2012 had nothing to do with a Game 6 hangover or mental toughness or any other nebulous theory having to do with some borderline irresponsible psychological evaluation.
I just did not see the secondary stuff coming together. The Neftali Feliz who arrived in Frisco in 2008 brought the triple-digit cheese with terrifying ease, but when he attempted to bring anything else, you knew it well before the ball left his hand. And then when it did leave his hand, there just wasn't a heck of a lot to it.
He'd drop his arm slot radically to throw the breaking ball -- whatever that was -- and when he tried to change pace, which wasn't often, his arm speed slowed by half and the ball was lifeless.
And then for the past two years, Feliz was not asked to develop those pitches. How, I wondered, could he possibly get through inning after inning, start after start with such mediocre (at times, nonexistent) secondary stuff? When he got in trouble, I thought, he'd fall back on his one phenomenal weapon and turn up the heat even more. While that works just fine in Double-A if you can bring it like Feliz can bring it, it don't fly in the big leagues.
Even without his best four-seamer working for him, Feliz forged on, trusted his catcher and served up a nearly perfect blend of offerings to keep a lineup that is admittedly NOT the 1989 A's completely off-balance.
108 pitches: 51 four-seamers; 25 changeups; 28 sliders; and 4 two-seamers. As the DMN's Evan Grant put it:
For the first three innings, or roughly the first time through the order, Feliz established his fastball, throwing 32 times while throwing the slider nine times and the change just six times. For the second trip through in the fourth and fifth innings, he threw 15 sliders and 15 fastballs and seven changes. And the third time around, he went heavy with changes, throwing them 12 times to seven fastballs and five sliders.
It was pitching.
The release point plot looked like this:
Three years ago when Feliz was a starter in the minor leagues the chart would have looked nothing like that even on his best day.
The fastball clearly was not his best, the command really wasn't that great, he didn't blow anyone away all night and yet Feliz dominated because his changeup -- which averaged 9.14 inches of armside run -- was clearly his best offering last night (-1.7280 Linear Weight per Pitch FX).
Whether you doubted the Feliz-as-starter experiment for the reasons I did, some other reason, or worried that the young man was so mentally and emotionally damaged by Game 6 that he'd never recover, virtually every reason to worry went down the tubes last night as Feliz took the ball and looked as comfortable and confident on the mound as a ten year starter. He showed tremendous poise in the first, getting out of a jam without letting it get out of hand like Darvish did on Monday. He shrugged off the death of his burgeoning no-hitter and plugged along.
Whether he can do this 30 more times or not remains to be seen, of course, but last night Neftali Feliz announced that he has the head, the heart and -- much to my surprise -- the stuff to be a quality major league starter.