What can we make of Neftali Feliz the starting pitcher?
Three prominent American League relief pitchers are making the move to the starting rotation this season, each of their transitions discussed in separate "30 Questions" columns, but perhaps there is none at greater risk of being overrated in fantasy than Texas Rangers closer-turned-starter Neftali Feliz.
There are two possible reasons for this:
• Feliz has the more extensive history of successful fantasy seasons as a reliever than fellow "switcheroos" Daniel Bard and Chris Sale, with a 40-save season (2010), a top-five Player Rater finish among relievers (2010) and back-to-back top-25 Player Rater finishes (2010-11) on his résumé.
• The Rangers have already demonstrated success with converting relievers to starters when they shifted C.J. Wilson into their rotation following the 2009 season and Alexi Ogando into the rotation after the 2010 campaign; proximity might breed optimism in Feliz's potential owners.
The problem with those arguments is that relief success doesn't assure a seamless transition to starting, nor can a team's history of successful switches be interpreted as a sign that future success will follow. Each pitcher brings his own skill set, some of which is suited to starting, some not.
Statistically speaking, Feliz, like Wilson and Ogando before him, seems destined to succeed. As a relief pitcher in the majors, he has a 2.55 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 9.07 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and has converted 74 of 84 save chances (88.1 percent) during his career. He also had a 3.06 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 9.96 K's-per-nine ratio in the 40 starts he made combined between 2008 and '09, all of those at the Class A (17 starts), Double-A (10) and Triple-A (13) levels.
However, the A-number-one concern about Feliz's move to the rotation is his reliance on his fastball. At the time of his major league debut in August 2009, he was a pitcher with a high-90s, capable-of-100-plus-mph fastball, but one who threw two other quality pitches: an 11-to-5 curveball and a changeup. His was an arsenal that appeared fit for the starting rotation, which explains the frequent debates early in his career about his long-term role. Heck, two seasons ago I wrote the "30 Questions" on this very same topic, except that at that time Feliz was destined for a season working as a short-inning reliever.
Now two years later, Feliz appears to have embraced being a one-trick pony.
While there's often a disparity in pitch-tracking data, ESPN's, as well as FanGraphs' and PitchF/X's, numbers speak loudly: We show him having thrown 80.2 percent fastballs in 2011, 79.6 in his career; FanGraphs' numbers are 79.8 and 79.2 percent; and PitchF/X's are 78.1 and 78.4. Feliz also averaged 97.4 mph with his fastball in 2011 and 97.6 mph so far in his career per ESPN's pitch-tracking data. To put that in perspective, neither Bard nor Sale was tracked with greater than 70 percent fastballs in 2011 by any of those three sources, each showing more reliance upon secondary pitches. In addition, neither derived so much of his value from the fastball as Feliz has so far in his career.
The chart below demonstrates Feliz's career reliance on his "secondary pitches," as well as opposing hitters' triple-slash and swing-and-miss rates against them. All statistics are per ESPN's pitch-tracking data.
Keep in mind that even 72 plate appearances, the number which Feliz has concluded with a curveball far in his career, is a precariously small sample. As a result, it's difficult to make any judgments about any of these pitches.
Now compare those with his performance with the fastball:
That represents a substantially larger sample, and it highlights two potential problems: First, as a starting pitcher, Feliz might need to dial down his fastball in order to last deeper into his individual outings. Second, without a clearly trustworthy secondary pitch, he might be more susceptible to left-handed hitters.
When it comes to dialing down the fastball, Ogando and Wilson serve as rational comparison points, as do two other relievers-turned-starters of the past three seasons, New York Yankees right-handers Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. All four of those pitchers averaged more than a full mph slower with their fastball as a starter than reliever (stats are 2009-11 combined):
If Feliz's fastball suffers similarly, and he's consistently in the 95 mph range rather than 97-98, might his statistics be adversely impacted? Perhaps, depending on his performance with and reliance on his secondary pitches. Take a look at the next chart, which breaks down Feliz's career fastball performance first by those clocked at 95 mph or below, then by those clocked at 96 mph or above:
That's not a damning differential -- the major league average rates on fastballs last season were .276/.353/.437, a 15.0 percent miss rate and 14.2 percent K rate -- but it threatens to bring Feliz closer to the pack, assuming he throws a comparable percentage of fastballs and indeed suffers that significant a drop in velocity as a starter. Whereas Feliz the reliever was a mid-twos ERA, K-per-inning pitcher, Feliz the starter, in that scenario, might be a mid-threes ERA, 7.5-K's-per-nine pitcher. He might be more Chad Billingsley and less Tim Lincecum, and that assumes he's capable of throwing 180-plus innings, as both Billingsley and Lincecum have in each of the past four seasons.
Whether Feliz reintroduces the changeup, a pitch he threw precisely once in 2010-11 combined per our pitch-tracking data, might be the key to his 2012. It's for that reason that he's one of the most critical pitchers to watch during spring training.
Then there's the question of workload, hinted in the Billingsley-Lincecum comparison. Feliz, now 23 years old, pitched 62 1/3 innings in 2011, fewer than 70 in each of the past two seasons and has never tallied more than 127 1/3 in a single professional season. Ogando makes a valid comparison; the Rangers afforded Ogando only 169 innings in his move to the rotation last season, so Feliz might consider himself lucky to be afforded anything greater than 160.
Might the Rangers make it three years in a row with a successful reliever-turned-starter? Perhaps, but the questions about Feliz's arsenal ring loudest of the "2012 three" -- Bard and Sale again the other two -- and it's for that reason that while his upside might rival that of his brethren, the risk involved in selecting him is more substantial.
It's for that reason we've ranked Feliz the equivalent of our No. 43 starting pitcher -- he's listed under relief pitchers, as that was his primary 2011 role -- and he'll need a promising exhibition season to vault into a higher tier.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.