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Neftali Feliz Will Close, World Will Not End

Yesterday, the Rangers announced that Neftali Feliz would serve as their closer again in 2011. As is the case when almost any talented young pitcher is shifted from the rotation to the bullpen, the reaction from the stathead community was fairly loud and mostly negative. After all, the superior value of a starting pitcher is a pillar of sabermetric orthodoxy, and using a guy who could start in relief is almost universally viewed as a waste of potential. In general, I agree with this principle. In this specific instance, though, I don’t think there’s really much to be upset about, as I don’t think there’s a significant gap in expected value from Feliz in 2011 regardless of what role they chose to use him in.

Let’s start with the main point of contention – the quantity of innings that Feliz will throw as closer compared to the amount he could have thrown as a starter. Last year, Feliz tossed 69 1/3 innings out of the bullpen, and only a few closers managed higher totals. In most years, even the healthiest ninth inning specialists will only manage about 70 innings per season. If the Rangers use him aggressively and are in a lot of close games, he could push towards 80 innings, but that’s probably the ceiling and shouldn’t be the expected result.

As a starter (assuming he stayed healthy), he’d throw a lot more than 80 innings. The question, though, is how many more? Feliz’s career high in innings pitched in a season is 125 1/3, back in 2008 when he split the season between A-ball and Double-A. He faced 509 batters that season, or about 60 percent of what a full-time Major League starter would face over the course of a season. He’s since faced even fewer batters in the subsequent two seasons, and realistically, it would be unwise of the Rangers to ask a 22-year-old to make a substantial leap in workload this year. Even as a starter, they couldn’t have asked him to make 30+ starts and then still be able to take the ball in October, had they achieved their goals and made the playoffs again. At that point, they’d be doubling his career high workload, and getting close to tripling what he did in 2010.

Realistically, Feliz would have been limited to something in the range of 25 regular season starts in order to keep the advance in workload to a reasonable level. How many innings can you get from a pitcher like Feliz in 25 starts? He’s averaged 4.09 pitchers per batter faced in his Major League career, and even if he adjusted his approach to try and be more efficient in getting outs (which could lead to reduction in performance quality, but we’ll leave that alone for right now), you’re probably looking at about 27 batters faced per game. Even dating back to the minor leagues, Feliz has never gotten through an entire batting order three times, as his career high in batters faced in a single game is 26. Given that about a third of the batters he faced would reach base safely, you’re looking at somewhere in the range of 18 outs per game, or around six innings per start.

25 starts with an average of six innings apiece gives you 150 innings pitched, or just over double what he threw last year. Given his age and prior workload history, plus the fact that the Rangers hope to be using him in October as well, and that seems to be the right workload for him as a starter this year. Using 150 innings as his starter workload, than the surplus in innings pitched for being a member of the rotation comes out to around 80 innings or so.

That’s a lot of innings, certainly, but we also have to account for the fact that closers are leveraged into more important innings by only being used in close games. The mean leverage index when a closer enters the game is about 1.8 (Feliz’s mark was 1.82 last year, if you’re wondering), meaning that the runs they save are about 80 percent more important than average to determining the outcome of the game. This is a significant difference, as 70 innings with a leverage index of 1.8 is essentially equal to 126 innings with a leverage index of 1.0.

Now, we can’t give Feliz credit for 100% of that extra leverage, as the Rangers would simply retool the bullpen in order to give those innings to their next best guy, but as I wrote about a month ago, the Rangers don’t have any good ninth inning alternatives in house. Besides Feliz, the rest of the bullpen is a collection of specialists with significant platoon splits, all of whom can be very good against same-handed hitters but are not an ideal choice for retiring a string of batters who swing the stick from the opposite side.

Despite the truism that it’s easy to find a closer, the reality is that not every relief pitcher can close. Bullpens have become highly specialized, and there are a lot of bullpen arms in the game who are simply around because of their ability to get one type of hitter out. They get exposed when asked to do any more than that, and the Rangers simply didn’t have another guy in that bullpen who could reliably get three opposite-handed hitters out on a regular basis.

It’s tempting to focus on the fact that the Rangers will be giving innings to Matt Harrison that otherwise would have gone to Feliz, but once you account for leverage and the significant drop-off in expected ninth inning performance from whoever replaced Feliz in the closer role, the gap between his value as a starter and a reliever in 2011 is quite minimal. Feliz’s age and workload requirements simply make the idea that he could have become a 200 inning, +5 win ace unrealistic, and there’s just not that large of a gap between a good 150 inning starter and a great 70 inning closer.

Add in the fact that Feliz could actually be more valuable as a closer in October when rotations shrink down and high leverage relief aces become more important, and the Rangers had a lot of very good reasons to make this call. There are good reasons why he should be starting as well, but the point is that both sides have legitimate cases, and in the end, the difference between the two directions is just not that large.