This won’t be an exceptionally positive piece. I have serious doubts about how successful Neftali Feliz will be as the Brewer’s closer. I have serious doubts as to whether Feliz will even be the full time closer. The odds that the Brewers will be able to flip him at the deadline for anything substantial appear small. And I doubt that the Brewers will be good enough at the same time Feliz is good enough to make his presence past the trade deadline a good thing.
But don’t get me wrong. The signing IS a good thing. All of those things I doubt could happen, and the chances are bigger with Feliz than (almost) any other option still available, and the Brewers can certainly afford the $5.35 mil gamble on having those things happen. If any or all of them happen, it will be a tremendous investment. If not, Feliz will be gone next year and the Brewers can move on. Even if Neftali doesn’t cut the mustard, perhaps the Brewers will discover that internal option for closing next year, and be able to use whatever money is available to address other issues, like catcher (perhaps) or starting pitching, if 2018 is deemed a possible contending season.
So what can we expect from Feliz next year? He was the Texas closer in 2010 and 2011, saving 40 and 32 games, but arm trouble and poor performance have limited him to 15 saves since (with 13 in 2014 for the Rangers). He posted an ERA of 6.38 in 2015 after a 4.90 FIP in 2014. Last season for the Pirates Feliz had a solid year: 3.52 ERA, 3.72 xFIP, a 1.14 WHIP, 10.3 K’s per 9 and 3.5 BB/9. Unfortunately, he allowed 10 homers in the 53.2 innings. He has allowed 26 in his other 7 seasons, so hopefully that would be an aberration. But a little deeper digging isn’t reassuring.
Feliz’s hard hit percent was at 37%; his career rate is 28.5%. His home run per fly ball percent was an astonishing 19.2% against a career 8.8%. Feliz actually increased his ground ball percent last year, reducing his flyball percent...but they were hit harder and farther than ever before. Pitching in pitcher-friendly PNC Park would logically have helped lower those numbers, but his homer percent was higher there (22.7% vs 16.7%). And his fly ball percent was actually higher on the road.
Is there any cause for optimism? A mid-nineties fastball has the potential to be effective, and Feliz’s 96.0 MPH average fastball last year was his hardest since 2011. A healthy arm (Feliz missed the end of last season with a biceps issue, but the club has indicated he’s fully recovered) can help with location. His strikeout rate was the best since his debut season of 2009, and his swinging strike rate of 14.2% was a career-best. As BP Milwaukee explored and David Stearns reiterated when the signing was announced, maybe the home run issue last year was simply an anomaly rather than an indication of declining stuff. We can hope - relievers are notoriously inconsistent year to year.
It is, of course, possible that all of these numbers will revert to his career averages or better. Brewer fans certainly hope so. But if Feliz proves unsuccessful as a high leverage reliever in Milwaukee, he won’t remain in that position for long. The contract will expire, and the Brewers will move on.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs