What’s Wrong With Neftali Feliz?

Last night, Neftali Feliz blew his second save of the season, giving up a run to the Royals in the ninth inning of a game that the Rangers would eventually go on to lose in extra innings. Because the run he allowed was charged to Derek Holland, his ERA actually fell to 1.26, so on the surface, it would seem like there’s not much to worry about.

Once you put ERA aside, however, it’s clear that not all is right with the Ranger’s closer. His BB/9 has jumped from 2.34 last year to 7.53 this year, and perhaps more worryingly, his K/9 has plummeted – he’s struck out just eight of the 62 batters he’s faced this year. Feliz is a power pitcher who succeeds by throwing the ball past hitters, and right now, he’s just not doing that.

However, diagnosing the cause of Feliz’s problems is somewhat complicated, because, well, just look at this:

Vs LHBs: 2.79 BB/9, 7.45 K/9, 39.1% GB%, 3.47 xFIP
Vs RHBs: 17.36 BB/9, 0.00 K/9, 29.1% GB%, 10.40 xFIP

That is not a typo. Feliz, a right-handed pitcher, has been his normal self against left-handed bats so far this year. His numbers are right in line with what he did against them the past two years. However, he’s faced 27 right-handed batters so far this year and has failed to strike out a single one – this after striking out 27% of the RHBs he’d faced over the past two seasons. He’s already issued more walks vs RHBs this year (nine) than he did all of last year (eight).

Generally, when a power pitcher goes south in a hurry, velocity is the first place to look. In Feliz’s case, his velocity has been down a bit this year (average fastball of 95.1 MPH this season compared to 96.3 MPH last year), but that doesn’t appear to be the culprit as he proved emphatically last night. In blowing the save against Kansas City, Feliz threw nothing but fastballs – 32 of them in all, averaging 97.4 MPH and topping out at 100 MPH. It didn’t matter. He got four swinging strikes on his 32 fastballs, but only one of those was from a right-handed batter, Mike Aviles, who ended up getting a base hit off Feliz anyway.

So, why has Feliz lost the ability to strikeout right-handed batters? To be honest, I don’t know. Looking at his heat maps for his fastball, the location doesn’t seem to be significantly different. He’s still pounding the upper part of the strike zone and pitching them mostly away. He doesn’t appear to be centering his fastball any more than he has in previous years. That doesn’t mean it’s not a location issue, but at the least, it’s not an obvious location issue.

So, let’s look at movement. His fastball does appear to be somewhat straighter this year – here’s two graphs of his horizontal movement, the first from 2011 and the second from 2010:

However, while there is a difference in horizontal movement, it’s not clear to me why this would only manifest itself against right-handed batters. Opposite-handed hitters should be whacking a predictably straight fastball as well, but they’re not – his problems have exclusively been against righties.

Usually, I’d like to propose some kind of theory as to what might be going wrong, but I honestly have no idea. It’s only 27 batters, so we could chalk it up to small sample size, but the odds of a guy with his kind of stuff and previous dominance facing 27 same-handed hitters without notching a single strikeout are very long. There’s something going on here – I just don’t know what it is yet.

Feliz is a guy we’ll have to keep an eye on. I’m sure the Rangers are just as curious about this as we are.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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sean
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sean
5 years 4 months ago

Neftali Feliz didn’t receive an earned run, it was derek holland’s responsiblity

Matt
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Matt
5 years 4 months ago

Fascinating. The absurd walk rate against right-handers is also curious. Are batters simply fouling off enough of his pitches that he eventually walks them? I wonder if there is something going on in his head when he faces right-handed batters. I’d like to see those heat maps for left-handed batters to see if there is a significant difference.

m123
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m123
5 years 4 months ago

kool. did u upload those images urself? can i become a contributer here on fangraphs?

Nik
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Nik
5 years 4 months ago

You spelled cool with a k, and that isn’t even the worst part of your comment.

Charlie
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Charlie
5 years 4 months ago

Ha. This is hilarious.

fredsbank
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fredsbank
5 years 4 months ago

obvious troll is obvious

HRB
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HRB
5 years 4 months ago

Maybe his problem last night was that he threw ALL fastballs. You’re not going to induce many swings and misses unless you have wicked movement or change speeds if hitters know exactly what’s coming and how fast it is.

GhettoBear04
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GhettoBear04
5 years 4 months ago

That seemed to be the issue last night. Combined with lack of great command, the Royals hitters were able to sit fastball and foul off enough pitches until one went in.

The weird thing is that seeing him throw up at those speeds and his general demeanor last night makes me feel more confident in him that the outings around his DL trip. The pitch sequencing sucked, but that can be fixed (or at least made better) easily enough.

joser
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joser
5 years 4 months ago

As Mr. Cameron well knows from his recent experiences watching Brandon League, a closer who throws nothing but straightish fastballs tends to get rocked, usually sooner rather than later.

Pitch sequencing continues to be the most interesting next frontier for SABR research, but there’s not much left open to doubt when every pitch is pretty much like the last one — especially for the guy standing at the plate.

So here’s the question: why is Feliz doing this? Does he not trust his other pitches? Is lingering injury preventing him from throwing them? From the pitch type data, I see the above-average curve ball he featured in past years is below average now. Now that might be just SSS, but he’s looking at the same sample (plus whatever he sees when throwing outside games). If he can’t count on that pitch for strikes against righties, then what else is he going to do but try to throw fastballs past guys?

Avery
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Avery
5 years 4 months ago

While I generally agree with your point about pitch sequencing, and even that being a central cause of League’s recent struggles, the comp isn’t a good one as League’s FB is actually a sinker with incredible movement.

joser
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joser
5 years 4 months ago

No, the comp is “throwing nothing but fastballs” especially on the first pitch or when he’s behind in the count. This was noted at LookoutLanding and then pointed out to the pitching coach

I talked to pitching coach Carl Willis about this.

“Some people are saying he is tipping his pitches,” Willis said. “Well not throwing it (split) until you get two strikes, that’s tipping your pitch.”

Sure, League’s fastball has movement — which is why he’s been able to get away with this for as long as he has (he more or less stopped throwing the splitter last season, a year after it was the best pitch in baseball). You can get away with throwing one pitch (just ask Mariano Rivera) but that pitch better be perfect because when everyone in the stadium knows what’s coming your margin of error is much lower (just ask Mariano Rivera lately)

But the point here is that a pitcher has to be able to go to something else when his fastball isn’t working for him. Feliz hasn’t been doing that, and neither has League. The question I’m interested in is: why?

James Jelak
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James Jelak
5 years 4 months ago

My guess (only a guess) is that he has a physical ailment of some sort. His recent DL stint was short. Since he’s been back, he hasn’t been right. Sunday’s save was odd. Game ended on a rare strike em out/throw em out. Feliz’ response appeared to be frustration or anger, not relief or joy. Odd. Unless he knows he’s not right and is frustrated by his wildness and lack of command.

DD
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DD
5 years 4 months ago

It could be his mental approach against righties, that he’s fearful of hitting them or something, but it’s odd he didn’t use his slider at all, which is a big weapon for him. Perhaps hitters have found a way to pick up the ball in his delivery early from the right side, so that it’s easier to diagnose what is coming, and lefties don’t have the proper angle to do the same?

Dustin
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5 years 4 months ago

Not sure why Feliz threw all fastballs last night. I know some pitchers don’t throw as many sliders/off speed pitches when they are hurt/recovering. Feliz should probably realize that even when you’re throwing 99 it doesn’t matter it you can’t throw strikes and a major league hitter can sit on the heater.

DavidCEisen
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DavidCEisen
5 years 4 months ago

14.1 innings pitched an you are using splits?

chuckb
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chuckb
5 years 4 months ago

Is it possible that he’s pitching from a different side of the mound or something so that it’s now easier to center his pitches if you’re a right-handed batter? I would think they’d figure that out pretty quickly and move him or make the adjustment.

Chris Anderson
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Chris Anderson
5 years 4 months ago

A couple of theories I have are:

(1) What appears to be a league-wide change by umpires toward not calling low strikes has taken out of play the low-and-away slider/curveball he used last year against RHP (ala ARod in the last out of the Division Series).

(2) Something that I can’t believe I’m saying… Bengie Molina was more effective at helping Feliz learn how to use his stuff than any other person.

Nick
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5 years 4 months ago

I see one difference in Feliz’ delivery this year, especially after returing from the DL…He seems to be throwing uphill..His body never seems to tip forward as much in is delivery as in the past. Look at video from last year, & see if you cant notice the difference. As a result, the pitches are flatter, tend to be up a little more, & I think the batter can pick the pitch up quicker. The upper body has to come forward & down a little more in the delivery…….

m123
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m123
5 years 4 months ago

its pretty obvious, if you watch the film he was out of gaS n huffing n puffing at around pitch 20.

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