Six pitches. That's all it took for Neftali Feliz to dispatch Jonathan Schoop and Chris Parmelee, the two Baltimore Orioles hitters he faced in the eighth inning of Friday's 7-3 Tigers win. Feliz has only faced five hitters in two appearances in a Tigers uniform so far, but the results are promising. He has only allowed one hit, and that lone baserunner was erased on a double play later in the inning.
This is an extremely small sample, but Feliz's underlying performance has been encouraging. After struggling to regain his premium velocity following Tommy John surgery in 2012, Feliz was designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers on July 3. After going unclaimed on waivers, Feliz declined an assignment to the minor leagues, and was released. The Tigers signed him on July 11, and he made his debut later that afternoon.
Prior to his release, Feliz's fastball averaged 95.2 miles per hour this season, according to Brooks Baseball. He reached as high as 99.3 miles per hour in May, but his peak velocity only hit 97 miles per hour in April. In his two outings with the Tigers, Feliz's fastball velocity has averaged 97.6 miles per hour, and he has hit a maximum of 98.7 miles per hour.
During his heyday with the Rangers, Feliz's average fastball velocity was in the 97-98 mile per hour range and routinely hit triple digits. However, following his surgery, he only averaged 93.4 miles per hour in 2014. He allowed a 1.99 ERA in 31 2/3 innings, but only struck out 17.2 percent of the batters he faced, way down from the 26.4 percent strikeout rate he had in 2010, when he was named AL Rookie of the Year.
Feliz's fastball is only half of the story, though. His low-80s slider is his secondary pitch of choice, especially with two strikes. Feliz only induced whiffs on 10.1 percent of swings when he threw the slider in 2010 and 2011, but got hitters to swing through 40 percent of the time (a Max Scherzer-esque percentage) when they actually elected to take the bat off their shoulder.
Since returning from injury, Feliz has struggled to locate the slider down in the strike zone. Opponents aren't hitting all that well against the slider, with a .214 batting average, but this is nearly double the .118 clip they hit in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, their average against his fastball has climbed from .201 in his early career to .257 in the past two years.
|Fastball opp. average||.201||.257|
|Slider opp. average||.118||.214|
Feliz has not induced as many swings and misses on his fastball since his surgery, either. The decline in velocity is the main reason for this, but without the threat of a slider he can throw for strikes, opponents have been able to sit on the fastball at will.
What should we be on the lookout for? Location of both the fastball and slider will be the main key to Feliz's success. He was able to get away with a few fastballs down the pipe in his debut against a Twins team ahead by four runs at the time, but kept things on the periphery of the plate last night. If he can throw the slider for strikes, it could help his strikeout rate rebound, though his strikeout-per-inning days may be over.
Despite the hot start, expectations for Feliz in a Tigers uniform should still be kept fairly low. The Rangers gave him plenty of chances to rebound after his surgery, and both of his outings with the Tigers have come after several days rest. Given the sad state of the Tigers bullpen, however, even this modified version of Feliz could be a solid improvement.