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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