ARLINGTON, Texas -- Way back in Surprise, Ariz., in March, a young Neftali Feliz -- who was named the AL rookie of the year on Monday -- was told he wasn't going to make the Rangers starting rotation. The club stretched him out and gave him a shot, along with a gaggle of others, to try to make the five-man rotation, but Feliz didn't show enough with his secondary pitches to be truly considered.
The electric fastball was still lighting up radar guns and prompted the Rangers to put him on the Opening Day roster as a late-inning reliever. But it was unclear how effective or important he might be. That all changed in one week. Closer Frank Francisco blew a couple of leads and seemed out of sorts. Feliz, meanwhile, was firing fastballs by major league hitters and pitching with confidence. So the Rangers made a switch, moving Feliz to the closer's job. He was told by manager Ron Washington that it was his job to keep.
Feliz kept it. But not all of the credit goes to that ridiculously fast fastball. Coaches Mike Maddux and Andy Hawkins worked with Feliz to develop some secondary pitches. And the young flamethrower quickly figured out that if he could throw some effective off-speed stuff, that fastball would become even more effective.
"During the season, I had a lot of help from Frankie [Francisco] and [pitching coach Mike] Maddux," Feliz said through a translator. "They helped me. I was more confident in my stuff. And I felt better at the end of year."
Feliz's slider and changeup have come a long way since spring training (and he's trying to incorporate the curve). He's developed more and more confidence in the secondary stuff and that gives hitters even more trouble when they face him. Still, Feliz's main weapon is the fastball and even on a radar gun known as "The Humbler" by the Rangers bullpen, Feliz can hit triple digits.
The 22-year-old had to clear a few other hurdles in 2010 too. He had to show he could pitch in consecutive games ad still get the job done. There were times he went out to the mound and found a way to get the final three outs despite not having his top velocity. Fans and teammates watched carefully as he took the mound in difficult venues like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium and pitched well. Feliz showed he has the proper temperament to handle the pressure situations. His laid back attitude helped him forget about tough outings. But it also required manager Ron Washington keeping on him about focus during non-save situations.
Through all of it, Feliz improved as the season progressed. He made the All-Star team, though he didn't pitch, and was nearly unhitable in the second half (1.42 ERA after All-Star break and opponents hit just .148 against him). He had 16 1/3 scoreless innings in his last 16 games beginning Aug. 23. So when the Rangers were coming down the stretch trying to close out the AL West, Feliz was solid. He finished with a rookie record 40 saves.
Monday's award is also yet another excuse to mention how important and pivotal the Mark Teixeira trade was for the Rangers. Feliz was a lower-level minor league pitcher with a big arm when the trade occurred in 2007. Now he's a dominant closer on a World Series team. Elvis Andrus, also included in the deal, was second in the AL rookie of the year balloting in 2009 after an impressive rookie campaign. He's coming off an excellent postseason and has cemented himself as the starting shortstop in Texas for years to come.
Andrus stressed getting better and making the rookie season a springboard. That's Feliz's mission now. He showed remarkable improvement and maturity for a rookie in a pressure job in 2010. If his secondary stuff continues to improve, the Rangers might be tempted down the road to try him as a starter. But for now, he's penciled in as the club's closer in 2011 and is drawing comparisons to Mariano Rivera with his demeanor and effectiveness.
That's a lot for a 22-year-old to handle. But Feliz has shown he's up to it.