Brewers Sign Neftali Feliz, Remain Interesting

The Brewers appear to have unearthed a gem in Keon Broxton, whose admirers are growing in number, the bandwagon led by FanGraphs’ own Jeff Sullivan.

If the projections are right, the Brewers found more sneaky value in their 2017 first baseman, Eric Thames, who spent the last few years launching home runs in South Korea.

And on Thursday, the Brewers reached a one-year, $5.35 million million deal with Neftali Feliz as first reported by Jon Heyman.

On the surface, Feliz was solid last season, and produced value for the Pirates on a one-year deal. After three seasons marred by injury and inconsistency with the Rangers and Tigers, Feliz struck out 28% of the batters he faced in 2016, posted a 19-point difference between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%), and recorded his hardest average fastball velocity (96.1 mph) since 2011.

While a .240 BABIP kept his ERA at a reasonable 3.52, that’s also probably a function of his approach: Feliz’s fly-ball tendencies have helped him to a .241 BABIP for his career.

He looks like another Ray Searage special.

But in a rebound year, Feliz was also unlucky. If you drill deeper into his lone year with Pittsbirgh, it suggests more upside and more value is possible for the Brewers in 2017.

Few pitchers do this better than Feliz:

That’s a harmless pop up induced by Feliz, whose four-seam spin rate last season (2,430 rpm) was 8% greater than league average (2,241) for four-seam fastballs.The spin helps him produce swing-and-miss strikes, fly balls and pop ups.

Among the 556 pitchers who have logged at least 100 innings since 2012, Feliz ranks third by infield fly-ball percentage (with fly balls as the denominator) and fifth in terms of overall infield-fly rate (using all batted balls as the denominator).

The Pop-Up Kings, 2012-16
Name Team IP FIP xFIP FB% IFFB% Total IF%
Tyler Clippard – – – 348.0 3.66 4.20 54.8% 17.9% 9.8%
Nick Hagadone Indians 107.1 4.24 4.12 42.1% 21.3% 9.0%
Ernesto Frieri – – – 199.2 4.34 3.72 54.2% 15.4% 8.3%
Johan Santana Mets 117.0 4.09 4.02 42.9% 19.3% 8.3%
Neftali Feliz – – – 180.2 4.46 4.40 42.9% 19.2% 8.2%
Chris Young – – – 492.0 5.06 5.23 56.7% 14.5% 8.2%
Dylan Bundy Orioles 111.1 4.70 4.67 42.8% 18.7% 8.0%
Sean Doolittle Athletics 231.2 2.45 3.18 51.9% 15.3% 7.9%
Koji Uehara – – – 262.0 2.55 2.70 50.8% 15.3% 7.8%
J.J. Hoover Reds 242.1 4.58 4.37 47.5% 16.2% 7.7%
IFFB% denotes infield-fly rate as function just of fly balls.
Total IF% denotes infield-fly rate as function of all batted balls.
Minimum 100 innings.

Feliz relied on the pitch 70% of the time last season, which is probably smart: the pitch ranked 36th among all four-seam fastballs in swing-and-miss rate.

So here’s where the upside resides: last season, Feliz recorded his lowest infield pop-up rate (15.4%) since 2009, four points below his 2012-16 average, and he also posted the worst HR/FB rate (19.2%) of his career. Only twice has he posted a double-digit HR/FB percentage during his career. His career average is 8.8%. While pitching in Miller Park typically doesn’t help pitchers reduce HR/FB rates, it seems unlikely Feliz can be as unlucky again as he was with fly balls last season.

Said Brewers general manager David Stearns to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

“The extent to which balls left the yard was a little bit of an anomaly. He’s a fastball pitcher. He throws high fastballs a lot. Those are going to leave the yard. But they also generate outs a lot of times. We understand with every style of pitcher, there are going to be drawbacks. That’s certainly true in Neftali’s case as well.”

Feliz is expected to close games in Milwaukee. Allowing fly balls in the late innings at Miller Park is akin to playing with gasoline and matches, but there’s plenty to like about Feliz, too. The good should outweigh the bad and Steamer projects a 3.66 ERA/3.81 FIP and 25.2% strikeout rate. If the Brewers are out of the race in July, Feliz could perhaps be flipped for a controllable asset.

Feliz of course comes with plenty of built-in risk. He has an injury history and was shut down at the end of last season with arm soreness.

“We’re confident that whatever soreness he had in September has resolved itself,” Stearns said. “He pitched a lot for the Pirates, so we don’t have any concerns that he’s going to be able to take on the workload of a high-leverage reliever.”

The Brewers are in a tough neighborhood in the NL Central, as we know. A turnaround isn’t going to happen overnight. But if the front office keeps finding players with intriguing upside and strengths that outweigh flaws – and continue to develop a strong farm system – the value will add up.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

The Cubs seem determined to squander their farm assets on relief pitchers. Perhaps they’ll start drafting generic college pitchers and cut down on international spending. It’s really amazing how an organization is run the way Bobby Fisher played chess and then suddenly in a couple of years they seem not to even know how the pieces move across the board.

7 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Sorry, I think this article was about the Brewers.

7 years ago
Reply to  VottomanEmpire

You stopped reading before the last paragraph.

Bernie Sanders
7 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Actually, I think he read one paragraph too many if you wanted him to believe your comment was germane.