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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.