Ray Searage Shouldn’t Have to Do Much for Neftali Feliz

Every time the Pirates acquire a new pitcher, the analysis is basically the same. It’s either super lazy, or super insightful, and I’m not really sure which. Here’s how it goes: while the given pitcher might have had his struggles lately, the stuff is there, and Ray Searage ought to be able to work his magic. Every time. Some fans of some baseball teams wouldn’t even be able to name the pitching coach. Searage is so prominent he all but has to come up every time a new arm is brought into the fold. He’s an enormous part of the Pirates’ plan, and the Pirates are going to put Searage to work on newcomers Yoervis Medina and Juan Nicasio. And others. Always others.

The newest arm, as of today, belongs to Neftali Feliz’s right shoulder. Feliz has signed a one-year contract worth a bit under $4 million, and ordinarily this would be an easy thing to ignore. Feliz wasn’t even brought back by the Tigers, for God’s sake, and he’s coming off an ERA over 6. To many, the most interesting thing about Feliz is what he used to be, years and years ago. Before the starting experiment and elbow surgery. The way this reads is that Searage has just another live-armed project. As I look at it, though, Searage might have less to do here than you’d think. Feliz doesn’t really seem that far off.

It was a bummer of a year for Feliz. He began it as a closer for Texas, then he went on the DL, then he got designated for assignment even though by that point the Rangers hadn’t yet fixed their lousy bullpen. He went to Detroit, he got hit, and in time he was non-tendered. In 48 innings, he gave up 34 runs. Though Feliz is still only 27, it’s been easy to imagine him just washing out. But the Pirates obviously see something. It should be easy for the rest of us to see, too. It’s right there on Feliz’s player page.

Here’s a table of what ought to be self-explanatory information. You’ll notice the 2015 season is split, between Feliz’s two employers.

Neftali Feliz, Career
Season Team Fastball mph Strike%
2009 Rangers 95.8 64%
2010 Rangers 96.3 65%
2011 Rangers 96.3 61%
2012 Rangers 94.7 59%
2013 Rangers 93.6 62%
2014 Rangers 93.1 65%
2015 Rangers 93.8 63%
2015 Tigers 95.3 68%

This is why I don’t think Feliz needs all that much tweaking. The most important column is the fastball column, showing average velocity. Feliz first showed up throwing 96, and then he lost some speed, first to starting and then to injury. He mostly hung around below 94, until he wound up on the Tigers. I don’t know what they might’ve done — maybe it was all Feliz — but the fastball started to return down the stretch. It varied for whatever reason game-to-game, but Feliz was throwing pretty hard, and reasonably close to how hard he used to throw at his peak. That’s promising, and impossible to fake. The last column is also promising, if just a bit less so — in Detroit, Feliz was throwing more strikes than ever. Maybe too many strikes, but he got hitters to swing at a lot more pitches out of the zone than he did with Texas earlier in the year. The velocity played up, and the strikes played up.

Obviously you can’t just ignore that, even with the Tigers, Feliz allowed more than a hit an inning. No one would say he was pitching well. But it looks like he was *almost* pitching well, which seems like it should make Searage’s job easier. The stuff has already improved. With Arquimedes Caminero, the pitcher had to get to Pittsburgh before the velocity jumped. Feliz’s has already jumped. Maybe it can jump more, but he should be able to be successful around this level.

Last year, even despite all the hits, Feliz ranked in the top quarter in average batted-ball speed. He wasn’t giving up rocket after rocket. And if you look at his whole career — over the past decade, 539 pitchers have thrown at least 250 innings. Feliz ranks 29th in home runs per fly ball. He ranks fourth in BABIP, in large part because he ranks first in infield-fly rate. He also ranks second in soft-contact rate, and he has the seventh-biggest gap between adjusted ERA and adjusted xFIP, in the good direction. I think it’s appropriate to look at Feliz’s career, because his career-average fastball comes in at 95.4 miles per hour. That’s right about where he was with the Tigers. Feliz clearly wasn’t like his old self, but he’s in the vicinity. Now it’s on Searage to try to close the rest of the gap.

It’s on Searage, and on a decent defense, and on a pitcher-friendly park, in the lesser of the two leagues, in a lower-leverage, non-closing role. Feliz has nearly everything going for him, which is why Pittsburgh is an excellent destination, as it would be for just about any pitcher. An extra bonus for Feliz: because he has considerable closing experience, he could end up making closer money again down the road if he shows that he’s back. There’s plenty for him to gain, and he’s already re-gained so much of his arm strength.

You don’t get to just assume Searage magic. It’s not automatic, and it’s not like the Pirates got what they wanted out of, say, Radhames Liz. Granted, even Liz struck out a quarter of the batters he faced. But not every project works out perfectly. There’s real risk to all their acquisitions, but there’s less than there might be for another organization, and I think there’s even less with Feliz. In part because he’ll probably be just a middle reliever. This is a lower-consequence kind of move. But also in part because Feliz has already made a lot of the progress one would like him to make. The Pirates get to try to make the finishing touches, and if they’re successful, they’ll breathe new life into a career that looked like it might have been dying.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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The Dude of NY
8 years ago

One issue with the article: the Pirates have a really bad defense. As a team, they were 28th in defense in from 2014-2015.

8 years ago
Reply to  The Dude of NY

Of course, this terrible defense of 2014 included nearly-historically-bad defensive third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and this terrible defense of 2015 included definitely-historically-bad defensive first baseman Pedro Alvarez, and neither of those Pedros Alvarez is on the team this year. They have also upgraded second base defensively from Walker to Harrison. They have a plus-plus defensive left fielder, a plus defensive right fielder, a plus defensive shortstop, a plus defensive third baseman, and a probably plus defensive second baseman heading into 2016. They’ve got a below-average defensive center fielder and a question mark at first base, but that question mark will definitely be better than definitely-historically-bad first baseman Pedro Alvarez, so overall I think it’s fair to expect them to be a pretty good defensive team this year.

8 years ago
Reply to  Darkstone42

Pretty much nails it. In addition, they have a C that frames the shit out of pitches.


8 years ago
Reply to  Darkstone42

I wonder if Jason Rogers would end up at 3B with Kang at SS though.

wily momember
8 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

brewers had got to the point of explicitly ruling out rogers playing regularly there, it’d surprise me if a contending team came to a different conclusion. who knows though

formerly matt w
8 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

The Pirates also rolled with Mercer at short and Kang at third fairly often even when Mercer, Kang, and Harrison were all healthy. If they weren’t willing to sit Mercer for Harrison and put Kang at short, I suspect they won’t do the same for Rogers, especially now that Kang is coming off a knee injury.

8 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I think he’ll wind up platooning at first with Jaso after Morse is either traded or sucks for a month and gets released.

8 years ago
Reply to  The Dude of NY

Let’s not overlook that the same link shows the Pirates with 6th ranked defense according to DRS (even with Alvarez).
To say 28th ranked defensive, full stop, is a little thin.

Brian Cartwright
8 years ago
Reply to  The Dude of NY

Pirates were 2nd to the Giants in ground ball out percentage and outs per ground ball (factoring in DPs) – and that’s WITH Alvarez

They rated poorly on out rate on balls in the air to the outfield, but some of the blame goes to their ground ball happy pitching stuff serving up lots of low, short flies.