Neftali Feliz to Start? Not Likely

Last week, Craig Calcaterra pointed us to a great conversation between Mike Ferrin and Rangers’ Assistant General Manager Thad Levine on Sirius XM. Though Levine couched the news within some considerable caveats (“Probably there‚Äôs a little bit more onus now on him really wowing us in spring training to inspire the move”), the general point was that wunderkind closer Neftali Feliz would get the chance to start in spring training.

Should rotisserie managers switch Feliz over to their starters’ cheat sheet? Should Rangers’ fanatics begin dreaming of Feliz shutouts and checking out available relievers for possible mid-season pick up? Probably not. As you drill down into what Feliz truly represents, there’s little out there in terms of comparative players. It might be a problem of definition, so let’s get that part right.

Definition One: Neftali Feliz is a young right-hander that throws gas.
This is sort of like defining Joe Posnanski as a person that types regularly, but it’s a definition that already eliminates one of his possible comparative players. Yes, CJ Wilson made the move from relief to the rotation recently, and for the Rangers even, but he was neither young (29 when he made the switch) nor right-handed, and he peaked at 93 MPH in his short stints. Maybe the handedness is not a big deal, but clearly age and previous roles are important.

Definition Two: Neftali Feliz is a 22-year-old gas-throwing right-hander with minor league experience starting and major league experience in the pen.
It may feel like we are getting somewhere, but this definition does not whittle the pool of possible comps down to a manageable number. Sort by pitchers younger than 24 years old that began their careers in the pen, put in more than 65 innings in relief, but ended up starting long-term, and you’ll find Carlos Silva, Vincente Padilla and Braden Looper on the list. And yet most of these names don’t seem integral to the understanding of the likelihood that Feliz starts this year. Mostly, these were pitchers that had more pitches than your average reliever but didn’t seem suited to be shutdown closers. One thing this particular group had in common was a lack of gas or a shutdown fastball, but let’s keep the focus on Feliz.

If we allow 25 year-olds into the list, an interesting name does pop up. Adam Wainwright once relieved and has turned into a pretty good starter. There are, however, some significant differences. For one, Wainwright owned a secondary pitch – a curve – that famously froze Carlos Beltran once. Add to the curve a slider and a show-me change, and Wainwright has used four pitches more than 7% of the time. Feliz is mostly a fastball / curve guy, and he he even threw his curve more rarely than Wainwright in the same role (15.9% for Feliz, 25.9% for Wainwright in 2006).

Brandon Morrow is an interesting name for sure. He came up at 23 and relieved for a year and a half. He had a 95 MPH fastball that he used about 70% of the time, too. But 70% is not 80%, and Morrow’s secondary stuff did receive some praise as far back as 2006, when Prospect Insider gave his splitter a 60 on the 20-80 scale. Starter-type stuff, the article says. Most prospect write-ups for Feliz focused on his fastball and discussion of whether or not he could develop the secondary stuff to start. Even Keith Law’s piece as late as early 2010 (insider link) talked about Feliz’ mostly-eschewed changeup and curve in that light.

This also may not sound like much, but both Morrow and Wainwright did not close. It’s a sticky role, though, closer: we’ve already seen time and time again that the baseball market values proven closers highly.

Definition Three: Neftali Feliz is a gas-throwing young right-hander that has closed for more than a full year after having minor league experience starting.

Short of defining him by his arsenal, this is about as granular a definition as you can drop on Feliz. One thing the definition does do, though, is accurately represent how rare his potential move might be. Here are the right-handed pitchers under 25 that closed for a full year and then returned to the starting rotation: Byung-Hun Kim.

Once again, it’s constructive to return to the respective arsenals in play here. Kim had an 89 MPH fastball that he threw about 60% of the time, a slider he used about 30% of the time in relief, and a changeup that he used about 10% of the time. Feliz has a 96 MPH fastball that he uses about 80% of the time, a curveball he uses 15% of the time, and a changeup that he barely uses at all. It’s not a stretch to eliminate Kim as a comp.

Define Feliz strictly and you lose comp players for him. Sure, other young men have relieved before they went back to starting, but how many were elite closers for a full year before returning to the rotation? Not many. Of course, the ‘real’ question is whether or not Feliz has the arsenal and the stamina to be a starter, but if our comps are to be believed, the answer may already be written.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

33 Responses to “Neftali Feliz to Start? Not Likely”

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  1. Christian says:

    What about Phil Hughes as a comp? He didn’t spend as much time in the bullpen, but he seems to be a guy with a power fastball who made a similar move, even though he obviously never closed.

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  2. Telo says:

    It’s hard to say how successful he would be, your article being the evidence – comps are all over the map, but if he could develop a quick and dirty cutter, and his CH and CU were passable… it’s hard to imagine him not being worth more in the rotation.

    Basically, if you have a tremendous young arm with experience starting in the minors, and great MLB peripherals after one year in the pen, how can you really not give him a shot at starting in the bigs? A player’s WAR ceiling is just so limited in the bullpen. The worst thing that happens is he goes back to closing… right?

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  3. Everett says:

    Wainwright did not close? Maybe not for a whole season like Feliz, but I’m pretty sure the Cardinals have a World Series championship that’d disagree with that claim.

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    • Everett says:

      Though I should add that despite the nitpicking I think Morrow is definitely the best comp for Feliz, but I agree with the article overall that Feliz will likely stay in the ‘pen.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      There seems to be something about closing for a full year. It ‘proves’ Feliz can handle the role well. Just means he might be ‘sticky’ in the role – the team may want to keep things the same, you know, not upset the apple cart.

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  4. philosofool says:

    At one point, Feliz was the top prospect in the Rangers system, ahead of Derek Holland and Justin Smoak. Even supposing that Smoak is a switch hitting Lyle Overbay, that’s a player who’s worth more than the best relief pitchers in the game. To get the sort of grade he got, Feliz should have had starter stuff. What happened?

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    • Ben says:

      Nothing’s happened to Feliz. He’s still got that same upside as a starter. Ron Washington and Co. seem to be worried more about the “closer” instead of maximizing wins. It’s a shame to not give him a shot, but that looks like what’s going to happen.

      Dollars to donuts the Rangers keep guys like Tommy Hunter and Brandon Webb in the rotation, when Feliz would be the better option, both in 2011 and in the future.

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    • deadpool says:

      Expediency. The Rangers needed pitching of any kind, Feliz was ready as a releiver but would need more time as a starter. If the Rangers had Cliff Lee to start last season I don’t think we’re having this conversation.

      But even when Feliz was in the Braves’ system BA included the caveat that some saw him as a releiver in the long haul.

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    • Bill says:

      You are questioning Feliz’s “stuff”?

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  5. gdc says:

    I thought of 1975 save leader, 23 YO Goose Gossage, who became a middling starter the following year and then went back to the pen the rest of his career.

    How about this for a comp, don’t know his pitch mix:
    #1 pick
    tall righthander
    minor league starter
    cup of coffee at age 20
    used as reliever in bigs
    All-star at age 23 exclusively in relief
    pitched some starts following year but mostly relief-13-9 W/L 10 saves
    back to bullpen at age 25 with a fearsome (for 1987) 10.7 K/9 and 5.9 H/9
    Reconverted to starter two years later and has a career year, ERA leader at 2.27 with 14-5 W/L, 6.9 H/9 2.1 BB/9 and top WHIP of 1.009. No longer fearsome with a 5.5 K/9 might explain his “only” being #6 in Cy Young voting.
    Gone from the bigs, presumably due to injury, only 2 years later.

    Raise your hand (and give yourself one) if you remember Scott Garrelts.

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  6. quick comment says:

    Perez is 22, as per your player page.

    Do you think that most General Managers realize that even average starters are worth more than most “elite” closers? Perez had 1.7 WAR for the fangraphs version…

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  7. Brad Johnson says:

    His situation reminds me a little of Papelbon…

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  8. Bill says:

    Did Feliz’s curve not famously freeze Alex Rodriguez, in kind of a big moment?


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  9. CJ says:

    I think deadpool’s comment, above, is closest to the best explanation. I think Feliz’s age when he came up to the majors was an important factor. (As I recall he was only 19 when he first pitched in the majors.) At his age, he would have been subject to significant pitch count limitations as a starter. The Rangers probably felt that Feliz’s skill level for non-fastballs worked in the bullpen but would require more seasoning in AAA to become a top starter. For expediency and “need” reasons, they made Feliz a closer. Now that they didn’t give Feliz the previous path to starting, which would have included more time in AAA, they probably wonder if his pitch repertoire will work as a starter.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      This seems about right. Had Feliz spent his last year-plus working on his secondary pitches and stamina, he might be ready to go now as a starter. Now, he couldn’t pitch more than 100 or so innings if they don’t want to jump him up too fast, and he hasn’t thrown his changeup enough to depend on it.

      But there must have been some skepticism about his ability to start. I just don’t see a Daniels’ FO not understanding that Feliz would be worth more as a starter.

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      • deadpool says:

        I wish I had my BA handbook from Feliz’ last year in the ATL in front of me, it does seem like there was some reason that even BA was concerned about him being a starter. If I remember correctly they rated him about 5th in the system and said the caveat was that if he was a starter he was 1 and if he was a releiver he was 7. I can’t remember why they were worried though, if it was something mechanical or makeup.

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  10. Josh says:

    When Feliz first got called up, he was using his curve and change up more often. But, he had some difficulty with control of the two – weren’t extremely seasoned. Washington encouraged him to use his fastball more, because it was getting people out and he was experiencing extreme success with it. His curve flashes brilliance, and Law as far back as 2 years ago held praise for his change up. It seems as if he has the stuff to start, but his fastball’s success has stood in the way of his secondaries.

    Daniels recently said he is well aware that a pitcher’s value is found in starting. There is a reason middling starters make as much as great closers.

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  11. bryan says:

    I have a feeling we are going to be having this exact same conversation in a year regarding the Reds and Aroldis Chapman.

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  12. KyleJo says:

    This won’t help judge how well Feliz can transition to a starter, but a current situation comp would be Andrew Cashner of the Cubs. Throws a 97-MPH fastball, close to 70% of the time last year, and the Cubs are planning to move him to the rotation after starting in the minors. Cashner has been said to have developed a change to go with his fastball/slider combo, so that would separate him from Feliz. Similar situations for the two teams, minus the closer position.

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  13. JV says:

    How much better is his stuff than a recent fastball-only prospect, Mike Pelfrey? I realize Pelfrey doesn’t have the history working out of the ‘pen that the article focuses on, but stuff-wise, wasn’t he strictly plus-plus fastball and no secondary pitches as a prospect, which would seem to make him a fairly decent comp? Have there been any other fastball-only types with stuff a little closer to Feliz’ level who have succeeded as starters recently?

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  14. WilsonC says:

    This is a case where I’m not sure we can learn much from comps because teams in general tend to be reluctant to move a relief pitcher out of that role after he’s had success.

    Even though he’s not a similar pitcher, C.J. Wilson could very well be the most relevant comp here, the reason being that he shows an organizational willingness to take a successful relief pitcher and try to transition him to the rotation. It might be worth looking at pitchers who came up as starters with plus fastballs but inconsistent secondary stuff as comps, rather that limiting it to converted relievers.

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  15. Chris says:

    What about Johan Santana? He spent considerable time in the pen his first 4 years, not sticking exclusively into a starting role until he was 24. Although Santana has a broader pitch selection, with his circle change and slider, I could see a similar situation develop with Feliz. The Twins certainly took a conservative approach to easing Santana into the starting role, and were able to do so as they had a rotation that was winning division titles. The Rangers seem to be in a very similar position. I agree that the “closer” title does add a little stickiness to the situation, especially with Franky Francisco gone, but the Rangers have a very deep bullpen and its much easier to fill in a hole at closer than in the rotation.

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  16. Bascinator says:

    In 2002, at age 29, the Red Sox moved Derek Lowe to the rotation full time after being in their bullpen for 3 years (mostly as a closer).

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  17. Pierre says:

    Timely article. Alexi Ogando owners need to know!

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  18. Eric says:

    Anyone else want to see Kim make a comeback? He was sooooo sick back in the day.

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