Ready for a Change of Scenery
It was the worst moment in Rangers franchise history. No, maybe the worst moment in D/FW sports history. At least it felt that way to me and every other member of Rangers Nation when David Freese hit a game-tying triple over the head of Nelson Cruz in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 107th World Series. It definitely felt that way to the man who gave up the hit. Before October 27, 2011, Ranger closer Neftali Feliz had been all but untouchable. Easily winning the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year award after racking up 40 saves in his inaugural campaign. 2011 looked every bit as promising; Feliz tallied another 32 saves while keeping his velocity steady between 98-101 miles per hour. Today, all of that seems a distant memory as Feliz is in Detroit and the Rangers are without the lockdown closer they thought they would have for years and years to come.
The logical question to ask at this point is this: how did a fall from grace happen so fast for Neftali Feliz? It very well could have been Game 6 and the fact that he was never the same pitcher after blowing what looked to surely be the Rangers’ first world championship. It also could have been the Tommy John surgery that he underwent in late 2012, causing a drastic dip in velocity. While these two scenarios seem highly likely, in reality they are highly unlikely. Star pitchers bounce back from heartbreaking losses (Mariano Rivera did just fine after the 2001 World Series and the 2004 ALCS). Star pitchers have also recovered from Tommy John surgery and gone on to have successful careers (Kenny Rogers, Colby Lewis, AJ Burnett, to name only a few). My suggestion here is simply the fact that after his decline once being made a starter in 2012, Feliz was ready to get out of Texas by the time of his DFA two weeks ago.
Sure, moving a closer to the starting rotation had worked for the Rangers before, referencing the move of CJ Wilson. As a closer, Wilson was not nearly as effective as Feliz. In 2010 and 2011 combined, Feliz converted 88% of his save opportunities, putting him in the top six in all of baseball. Most critics of his move to the rotation have referenced his surgery after becoming a starter, arguing that he shouldn’t have been expected to maintain his high velocity for innings at a time. After looking at the numbers, it becomes hard to argue that Feliz blew out his harm due to the high stress of being starter, however. Feliz tore his ulnar collateral ligament just six starts into his 2012 campaign, not nearly long enough to tell if he blew his arm out because he was now pitching for longer stretches of time.
Earlier this season, Feliz showed flashes of what had once made him a great closer. However, the few times that he did show signs of his former self, they were outshone by absolutely pathetic performances. Three times he gave up multiple runs while recording less than three outs (4/10, 5/1, 5/16). After three months worth of subpar performances and a velocity that continued to dwindle, the Rangers had no choice but to DFA the former phenom. Just five days ago, Nefty entered a game in the eighth inning for the first time in a Detroit Tigers uniform against the Minnesota Twins. In his last appearance for the Rangers just eight days prior, his fastball topped out at 95 mph (once) and averaged between 92-93 mph, a far cry from where he was at the start of his career. In his first appearance with the Tigers, his fastball topped out at 99 mph, with the slowest fastball he threw being 96 mph (via Fangraphs).
What is the cause for this sharp climb in velocity in just eight days, when he averaged 94 mph in all his appearances in Texas this season? Adrenaline? Getting up on the right side of the bed that morning? Many thought that Neftali Feliz was done with being an effective pitcher after he was designated for assignment from the Rangers. If one appearance in Detroit is any indicator, he was only done being an effective pitcher here. It is quite possible that after the horror of Game 6, being stripped of his closer role, and Tommy John surgery, Neftali Feliz simply needed to get out of Texas to be able to succeed again. Will that happen? Only time will tell.