By Jason Shetler
Several years ago, Neftali Feliz was emerging as one of the best up and coming relief pitchers in all of baseball. The former AL Rookie of the Year recipient was moved to the Texas Rangers rotation in 2012. That decision proved costly, as he underwent Tommy John surgery that year. Feliz pitched well in the Rangers bullpen in 2014, but couldn’t seem to get on track last season, posting a 6.38 ERA in 48 combined appearances with them and the Detroit Tigers.
This past offseason, the Pirates agreed to terms with Feliz on a one-year deal worth $3.9 million. While the Bucs generally have gone the starting pitching route with reclamation projects, you could say that about Feliz in terms of a bullpen arm. Although his ERA from 2015 looks dreadful, he did have a 4.05 Fielding Independent Pitching, which isn’t great, but more respectable than his actual ERA.
The Pirates bullpen as a whole has been a weakness in the early going of 2016. Arquimedes Caminero and Jared Hughes have really struggled, Kyle Lobstein was sent down to AAA Indianapolis and Cory Luebke hasn’t panned out, and he too was optioned to Indianapolis recently. Feliz meanwhile has given the Pirates stability in the seventh inning role. In 19 appearances thus far, he’s put up an ERA of 3.68 with an even better 2.93 FIP. His walk and strikeout ratios have been excellent at 1.8 and 12.3 respectively. Perhaps the biggest key to Feliz’s success so far this season, aside from issuing very few walks, is being able to establish the fastball more. He’s thrown the fastball 65.4% of the time, up around 8% compared to last season (57.1%). The average fastball velocity for Feliz is still quite good at 94.3 mph. With the combination of control and velocity, he’s gotten a ton of swings and misses at 16.1%, which is well above his career mark (10.8%). Not only has Feliz been a bright spot in the bullpen, but he also might be the most underrated Pirate in 2016.