With much of the focus on Yu Darvish over the last 4-6 weeks, some of the limelight that may have been on Neftali Feliz’s transition from dominant closer to starting rotation was redirected.
Shortly after the 2011 season ended, the idea of Feliz moving to a starting role was being pondered by many Rangers fans. Feliz has made it no secret that he wants to be a starter and after the devastating end to the 2011 World Series, and the role that he played in it, it seemed like the timing was right.
Feliz was noticeably bothered and distraught over the way things went down in Game 6 of the World Series, and who could blame him.
A few months removed from that fateful night, Feliz said ”I’m not mad at myself because I threw my pitch, it just got hit.” He also discussed his emotions following Josh Hamilton’s 10th inning 2-run home run, saying ”I was upset, but after we hit the home run, I thought I was ready, but no one told me to pitch. When we got the lead back, I thought I was going to be able to come back because I was more calm and relaxed after that.”
As you know, Feliz never came back in the game, and the rest is history. Oliver and Feldman allowed 2 runs in the bottom half of the inning which knotted the game up again, and then the unbelievable…
That was how Neftali finished his season. That was his final moment in the 2011 World Series…the lasting memory that he got to carry into the off-season.
Then, just weeks later in mid-November, he got the call. His role was changing. The Rangers had signed Joe Nathan to take over the closing duties and Feliz was being transitioned into the starting rotation. A chance to start fresh.
It was only two years ago that the Rangers were making a similar move with C.J. Wilson. In 2008 and 2009, Wilson spent time as the Rangers closer before successfully transitioning to the starting rotation in 2010, winning 15 games with 3.35 ERA that year.
So, while the transition from closer to starting rotation is something that Rangers fans will get to experience twice in three seasons, the list isn’t long of major league pitchers that have successfully made the change in roles. Looking at career statistics across all major league pitchers, we wanted to identify pitchers that met three criteria:
- A minimum of 40 saves, which is meant to signify the equivalent of two seasons as a closer.
- A minimum of 90 games started, which would signify that the pitcher was at least successful enough to maintain a role in the starting rotation for roughly three seasons.
- The last thing we look at is the order of things. We want to only identify the pitchers that served as closers prior to moving to the starting rotation.
The list is 7 guys long.
7 major league pitchers that started their careers as relievers/closers and saved at least 40 games, then transitioned into the rotation, starting at least 90 games. They are (in no particular order) Charlie Hough, Derek Lowe, Wilbur Wood, Kelvim Escobar, Shane Rawley, Doug Bird and Braden Looper. I know…who cares about who they were. I just figured the list was too short not to share. Note: C.J. Wilson doesn’t even make the list because he hasn’t started 90 games yet. A milestone that, barring injury, he’ll eclipse something in late June/early July.
You could easily argue that none of the above pitchers, with the exception of Lowe, were as dominant as Feliz has been as a closer over the last two seasons. All of them went on to achieve a reasonable amount of success in the starting rotation, with Bird being the least successful and bouncing back and forth between the bullpen in later years.
The point of all of this is that Neftali Feliz is attempting to do something that few pitchers have accomplished before in Major League baseball. And do you have any doubt that he’ll be successful?
Let’s look at two of the more recent pitchers that fit the mold. Derek Lowe moved into the starting rotation in 2002 and won 21 games, finishing 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting. Looper won 12 games with a 4.94 ERA when he made the switch in 2007. And of course, we’ve noted above the success that former Ranger C.J. Wilson had in 2010. A relatively vast range here, but the results were in line with the abilities of each of the three pitchers.
So, what can we expect from Feliz in 2012?
We know Feliz has a devastating fastball, which make his curve and change-up that much better. In 2011, as a closer, Feliz threw that fastball 80% of the time. He’ll have to learn to rely more on his off-speed pitches and his slider, as the majority of starting pitchers utilize their fastball 70% of the time or less. I’m confident that he’ll be able to make this change and with the right coaching from Mike Maddux and Napoli’s presence behind the plate, take full advantage of his abilities.
The skill and abilities are there.
Location and team are both contributing factors to success, especially when looking at statistics. He pitches in a hitter-friendly ballpark, but has a stacked line-up that will put runs up on the board to support him.
The final piece is endurance and health, which both lead to opportunity. Neftali is young and it will be interesting to see what restrictions the Rangers coaching staff put in place throughout the season to protect his arm. Assuming no injuries, I think it’s reasonable to project him at 29-32 starts with 175-190 innings pitched.
While I’m not ready to project a performance in line with what Derek Lowe had in 2002, I think it’s reasonable for us to believe that Feliz can perform close to the level that C.J. did just two season ago.
Baseball Do’s official prediction: 16-7 with a 3.70 ERA, 165 K’s