There are two things specifically that I have written about Neftali Feliz, 1) that he is currently my favorite player in the game and 2) that he is too talented to pitch just 70 innings a season for the rest of his career.
To me, Feliz carries in his arm more potential than just about anyone on the current 40-man roster. We know that he can be a dominant closer, but can he make the transition to starter?
In my estimation he can, but you’re not going to teach him to swim by throwing him in the river. You’ve got to give him every opportunity for success and that means you’ve got to have a plan.
Not that anyone’s asking me, but I came up with a pretty great plan myself, so allow me to play “informed baseball person with actual decision making power” for a bit.
If Feliz moves to the rotation in 2011, these are the things that will need to happen, in 5 parts –
Make sure he has the arsenal
Make sure he knows when to change gears
Make sure he’s mentally there
Make sure you’re mentally there
Make him the #5 starter, not the TORP
Everyone knows Feliz has an electric fastball. He can reach triple digits without much effort and it’s hard to catch up to in a short-game situation. It is a closer’s pitch, which I would define as the pitch a closer throws when he’s got you right where he wants you.
(A starter’s pitch, on the other hand, is whatever pitch he throws next.)
Mariano Rivera has a cutter and Trevor Hoffman had a changeup. Feliz has his fastball. To be a starter, the fastball on its own will never be enough.
According to a small bit of research I did, Feliz started off 2010 featuring mostly his fastball. He mixed in a slider/curve [or slurve] and a changeup. As the season wore on, his changeup completely vanished. His slurve was featured more in the last two months of the season before his fastball took over in the playoffs, being used over 92% of the time.
The very nature of a closer dictates that, ideally, he will average 3 batters per outing. This grants him the luxury to use his one defining pitch to excess. To this point, Feliz has thrived on blowing people away, but as a starter he can only touch the red during the most opportune times.
I’ve heard reports that his slurve has improved and that he’s adding a cutter. When asked about the cutter, pitching coach Mike Maddux smirked and said something like, “We’re working on some stuff.”
Starting pitchers need an arsenal and the more diverse it is the more dominant the pitcher can be. Without at least 3 strong pitches, this discussion is over and Feliz is in the bullpen.
CJ Wilson said last year that he was learning where his gears were. [I'm paraphrasing there.]
Having come out of the ‘pen for 5 years, Wilson knew that his job was to get outs as quickly and efficiently as he could, but as a starter he had to pace himself.
When you’re a starter, you have to learn to ratchet things up and down. Pitchers like Joel Zumaya and Jonathon Papelbon have one gear, everything. They put maximum effort into every pitch, but that is in a short-game.
To be a starter, Feliz will have to throw fastballs that aren’t the fastest fastballs he’s ever thrown. A pitch at 93-mph is sometimes as hard to hit as one at 99-mph.
You can touch 99 as a starter, but not on every other pitch. Feliz has to put that one in his pocket, lest he either get batted around or burnt out by the 4th inning.
Apart from the physical, there is also the mental part of the game. Is Feliz built to think like a starting pitcher?
Feliz said last week that, given the choice, he’d rather close. A few days later he admitted that he could adapt if he had to.
(Today, by which I mean Monday, he told the media that he wants to start, which might indicate a lot more confidence on his secondary pitches, a good sign.)
Let’s not forget that Feliz is only 22 years old, but also that he has handled more pressure than a lot of other pitchers his age. Given all of that, I pull the trigger, despite his initial reluctance.
Find another closer, because Feliz is a starter.
But, it’s very important that, before the team makes the same commitment, they decide that it’s what they want too.
Too many ballclubs put their young pitchers on the Yo-Yo Plan. You make them a starter, then they have a bad outing and you panic. You move them back to the bullpen, then a starter goes down and they’re back in the rotation.
All pitchers, young or old, need some level of consistency to be effective and you can’t treat their routine with such reckless abandon.
If Feliz becomes a starter, then a starter he should remain. You map out his workload* going in and, barring injury, you stick to it until season’s end. Let him show you what he can do and, if he struggles, let him work through it.
*I’ve heard estimates that 160 innings is likely, which would effectively double what he did last year.
My final point, I think, is the most important because it takes a lot of things into account. Mainly it considers that Feliz is only 22 and that he has never started games at the major league level.
Putting him at the back of the rotation gives him a chance to fail. It gives him a chance to grow and it puts less pressure on him. He will have less starts and he won’t have to worry about carrying the team.
To both the fans and the organization I would say this: Feliz is a great young pitcher, but you must temper your expectations. If he moves to the rotation this season, it must be a learning experience. His raw talent is undeniable, but he isn’t bulletproof and he will fall down. Just let the kid pitch.
And to Feliz I would say this: There was a young fireballing pitcher a long time ago that started out in the bullpen with the Mets and then moved into the rotation with the Angels. He went on to 7 no-hitters and the HOF. His name is Nolan Ryan and he owns the team you play for. Use that to your advantage.
…and that is about all that I will say about Neftali Feliz at this moment.