Game 6, Mariners at Rangers
Yesterday, the M’s got to face a guy making his US/MLB debut, and today they face Neftali Feliz who’ll be making his first MLB start. Feliz was one of baseball’s hottest commodities in 2008/9; he was acquired in the massive Mark Teixeira deal that essentially remade the Rangers, and Feliz quickly rose through the ranks to become a top 10 prospect in all of baseball. He had the classic power pitcher’s arsenal and high-90s velocity, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he began laying waste to the AL.
The Rangers eased him in to the bigs in 2009 by using him as their set-up man in the bullpen. In 31 innings, he struck out 39 hitters and yielded 8 walks. The next season, the Rangers made the seemingly curious decision to keep him in the bullpen, this time as their closer. As much as it seemed counterproductive to keep your best pitching prospect limited to 1IP stints, it didn’t seem to hurt the club or the pitcher, as Feliz enjoyed another sub-3.0 FIP season and the Rangers won the pennant. In 2011, the Rangers again pulled the plug on a possible role change for Feliz and kept him in the pen, and they again won the pennant with the Venezuelan as their closer. But Feliz seemed like a different pitcher.
Instead of the good control he’d exhibited in 2009-10, he was something of a mess as his walk rate increased from under 7% to nearly 12%. His K rate continued to fall, ending the year at 21.4%, well behind the likes of Craig Kimbrel or Mariano Rivera, but also behind Grant Balfour, Matt Albers, Will Ohman and a scuffling Joakim Soria. A low BABIP (though he’s always had a low BABIP-against) helped his ERA, but his FIP was now a fairly pedestrian 3.57. This spring, the Rangers committed to moving Feliz to the rotation and they’ve stuck with it (Boston, you could learn something here), despite some scares like shoulder soreness this spring.
Feliz hasn’t really demonstrated big platoon splits the way you’d expect given his FB-SL heavy repertoire. He does throw a change, but it’s his fastball that he’s relied on thus far, using it about 80% of the time in 2010-11. The sudden wildness and a curious lack of strikeouts make him a real question mark for a team without many. Since these are the Rangers, even if Feliz struggles, it shouldn’t hurt their chances: they could always swap him out for Alexi Ogando who moved from the pen to the rotation last year with great results. Still, the M’s get yet another shot at an immensely talented pitcher who’s also strangely vulnerable right now.
On the other hand, the M’s are the one team who didn’t seem to notice that Feliz was suddenly human last year. The M’s were famously 0-28 with 13 Ks (about 1/4 of his overall strikeout total on the season) against him, and it says something that what jumped out at me the most from his line were the two walks (“Really? Someone got on base? I don’t remember that”). That said, it’s a new, Cust-less line-up the M’s are trotting out, and it’s one that gave Yu Darvish a rude welcome last night. They were patient, but they also punished mistakes – it’s sort of a truism, but that’s the approach they need to use against Feliz. Making the pitcher throw a lot of pitches and work hard early isn’t some novel strategy, but it’s particularly relevant when facing a converted closer who battled arm troubles in March.
The M’s line-up is loaded with left-handed hitters to counter Feliz’s slider; Miguel Olivo’s the only righty in the group. Jesus Montero returns from the stomach flu to DH, and Munenori Kawasaki’s in the line-up again at SS, as Brendan Ryan’s sore somewhere.
1: Figgins (LF)
2: Ackley (2B)
3: Ichiro! (RF)
4: Smoak (1B)
5: Seager (3B)
6: Montero (DH)
7: Saunders (CF)
8: Olivo (C)
9: Kawasaki (SS)