Neftali Feliz’s Pitch Selection

Dave Cameron’s look at possible replacements for Neftali Feliz’s closer role should he transition into a starter’s role inspired me to take a look at Feliz’s pitch selection. Evan Grant’s great piece on Feliz’s pitch repertoire finds that Feliz started to throw more breaking balls later in the season (and less off-speed pitches). I was also interested in looking at how Feliz’s repertoire evolved over his first full season.

Feliz throws his high-90s fastball 80-90% of the time on most nights, as well as a sort of slurvy slider-curve hybrid at 80-82 mph. As noted in Grant’s look at Feliz’s secondary pitches, his upper-80s changeup is rarely used — he used it even less as the 2010 season winded down and in the playoffs. Here’s a look at Feliz’s month-by-month pitch selection in 2010, including the playoffs (FF – fastball, SL/CU – slider/curve, CH – changeup; “total” indicates total pitches in that corresponding row or column):

Month FF SL/CU CH Total
April 78.5% 12.2% 7.2% 181
May 83.2% 11.2% 5.6% 179
June 85.9% 10.9% 3.3% 184
July 85.6% 12.1% 2.3% 174
August 75.2% 22.7% 2.1% 141
September 79.4% 19.4% 1.1% 175
October 92.4% 7.6% 0.0% 118
Total 952 158 38 1152

Feliz experimented more with his changeup as he started out the 2010 season, but later dropped its usage. In favor of his breaking ball, Feliz dropped 10% of his fastballs between July and August, while continuing to use less of his changeup. Interestingly, Feliz’s seemingly increased confidence in his slurve — which he utilized up to 20% of the time — decreased dramatically as the playoffs ensued in October, dropping down to 7.6%. Of any month of the season, Feliz broke out his heated fastball the most in October. It’s clearly his best pitch, unhittable at times and the thing which helped shoot him up prospects rankings so quickly before 2010. Pitching in October, when late-inning relievers are relied on to preserve must-win games, Feliz’s confidence in predominantly his fastball showed based on his pitch selection. As a result, Feliz actually threw zero changeups during the deep playoff run by the Rangers.

Here’s a look at the same pitch selection by month but also via platoon splits:

vs. RHH FF SL/CU CH Total || vs. LHH FF SL/CU CH Total
April 78.9% 21.1% 0.0% 76 || April 78.1% 5.7% 12.4% 105
May 78.7% 20.0% 1.3% 75 || May 86.5% 4.8% 8.7% 104
June 83.9% 14.4% 1.7% 118 || June 89.4% 4.5% 6.1% 66
July 86.5% 11.5% 1.9% 104 || July 84.3% 12.9% 2.9% 70
August 66.1% 32.2% 1.7% 59 || August 81.7% 15.9% 2.4% 82
September 80.9% 19.1% 0.0% 68 || September 78.5% 19.6% 1.9% 107
October 88.1% 11.9% 0.0% 42 || October 94.7% 5.3% 0.0% 76
Total 439 97 6 542 || Total 513 61 32 610

Same-handed batter-pitcher matchups rarely see changeups, and this trend is clear in Feliz’s pitch selection against right-handed hitters. He actively increased his breaking ball usage against both right-handed and left-handed batters in July-August, first against left-handed batters, then against right-handed batters. His changeup usage was primarily against left-handed hitters, but even the opposite-hand matchups decreased in changeup usage to below 2% late in the season.

Was there a reason why Feliz lost confidence in his breaking ball and off-speed pitch and instead relied on only his fastball? A pitcher’s confidence in his repertoire can vary depending on the results of each pitch he throws, whether he can get whiffs or if batters make contact off of it. Thirteen changeups were put in play while 15 breaking balls were put in play in 2010. And while such raw numbers aren’t 100% accurate depending on the source of your pitch data, about 13 out of the 38 changeups Feliz threw in 2010 were put in play (34% of changeups), which is not a good number for a pitch type that should be getting whiffs (only three, or 8%, of his changeups caused a batter to whiff). As for Feliz’s slurve, which he used four times as much as his changeup in all of 2010, 11% of his breaking balls caused whiffs while 9.5% of them were put into play.

As a final note, Feliz’s reliance and confidence on his fastball in the playoffs seems to have very much to do with the success of it. Feliz whiffed 12.6% of batters when using his fastball, while 16% of his fastballs were put in play. Batters swung more often percentage-wise when facing Feliz’s fastball compared to when they saw his breaking ball or changeup, so that 16% in-play number is better than it looks (compared with his secondary pitches).

For the Rangers to develop Feliz into a starter, Feliz will have to put the most effort into developing his changeup, while developing more confidence in his slider/curve, as it can definitely become more of a plus pitch. Feliz can rely on his fastball 80-90% of the time as a reliever, but won’t have that luxury if the Rangers intend to start him every five days for multiple innings.

Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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Does the change in “C” coincide with any of this? When did the Rangers get Molina?

Double D
Double D

Good point, they traded for Molina July 1, which makes it a useful bit of info to connect with the data we see here. Molina likely informed Feliz that relief pitchers, no matter the quality of their fastball, need to keep hitters off balance and give them a different look from time to time. Feliz was likely told to use his breaking ball as a change of pace to freeze hitters on pitch 1 of an at bat, or used more often when looking for a punchout, thrown out of the zone.

As for the playoff increase in fastball use – as a rookie pitcher in high pressure situations, its reasonable to assume he didn’t want to increase the probability of walks (especially facing the Yanks, notorious for theyir collective batting eye) and therefore used the pitch he had the best command of, the FB, to ensure he’d throw strikes. Not to mention, with that playoff adrenaline, he could really let the FB loose.


The last time I remember Feliz using his changeup was in a game against the Orioles just after Molina was acquired. Feliz was having trouble putting away Corey Patterson with his fastball, so Molina went out to the mound and convinced him to use his changeup. The next pitch was absolutely crushed for a game-winning grand slam. After that experience, the changeup was not used much for the rest of the season.