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Neftali Feliz Becomes Tricksier

May 19, 2011

Neftali Feliz Gets his Preciouseses

A fair bit of brouhaha surrounded the strange end of the Rangers-Royals game on May 18th. And it leads to the possibility that one of the game’s best relievers just got maybe a little better, despite a mini-meltdown last night.

Starting with the bad: After Neftali Feliz gave up a game-tying, save-blowing homer on the first pitch phenom Eric Hosmer saw, he walked Jeff Francoeur.

Let’s not blow by that statement. It’s up in the air whether Feliz has suffered a little control trouble this year; following last night’s game, he’s walked 11 and struck out just 8 through 13.2 innings this year (albeit with a large DL stint); this is compared to his 71:18 K-to-walk ratio in 2010. But a closer look at his situational walks reveal perhaps a different story:

April 11th: His first walk of the season came on a two-out, intentional pass to Miguel Cabrera, with a guy on second and first base open.

April 15th: With two outs and first base open against the Yankees, Feliz walked Jorge Posada on five pitches (Posada at the time had hit five homers in the Yanks’ first ten games, and had already been walked twice before in the game).

April 20th: With two outs against the Angels, Feliz game up three consecutive full-count walks to Howie Kendrick, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells. Alberto Callaspo ended the threat with a deep fly ball out. Feliz was put on the DL the next day.

May 10th: Feliz enters for Darren Oliver in a blowout game against the Athletics. Why? Probably just to get a little work in. With Ryan Sweeney inherited on first, Feliz walks Josh Willingham on a full count, gets Hideki Matsui to pop out, and then walks Kurt Suzuki on four pitches to load the bases. A sac fly scores one, and the Feliz induces a game-ending groundout from Andy LaRoche.

May 13th: With two outs against the Angels, nursing a three-run lead, Alberto Callaspo reaches second on defensive indifference, leaving first base open; Feliz walks Hank Conger, and then retires Mark Trumbo to end the game.

May 15th: With one away and a one-run lead against the Angels, Feliz walks Howie Kendrick on a full count, and then gets Alberto Callaspo to ground into a double play. Game over.

Which brings us to the terribly strange game last night. May 18th. On his very first pitch, Feliz gives up the lead to a game-tying homer to Hosmer.

(For the record, Hosmer now has seven extra-base hits in 42 at-bats. Derek Jeter has five in 165. The Captain’s back!)

By the way, in 2010, Feliz gave up five dingers:

4/26/10 – Feliz gave up back-to-back homers in a loss to the Tigers (Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Inge).

7/9/10 – Feliz imploded against the Orioles, giving up a three-run homer to Corey Patterson before being yanked.

7/18/10 – Feliz gave up a leadoff solo shot to Mike Cameron of the Red Sox, but rebounded and still got the save.

8/22/10 – Feliz gave up a leadoff solo shot to Ty Wigginton of the Orioles, but then retired the next three batters.

And in keeping with the trend, Feliz gave up a solo shot to Hosmer. But what happened after is the fun stuff. To reiterate: He walked Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur is currently on pace to equal his single-season high for walks with 42. Francoeur hates walking. Abhors it. Nonetheless, walk he did.

So Ned Yost puts in Jarrod Dyson to run. Everybody knows Dyson’s going to run. Dyson has a huge lead. Feliz promptly picks him off first. Feliz then walks Billy Butler. Yost puts Mike Aviles in to run. Everybody knows Aviles is going to run. Aviles has a moderate lead. Feliz promptly picks him off first. And then strikes out Wilson Betemit.

After Aviles got nabbed, he complained to the first base umpire, sentiments that would be echoed both by Yost and Dyson later:

“He got both of us on the second pickoff move,” Dyson said. “The first throw-over, we saw it right away. If he was going to balk, he did it on the second pickoff.”

“My opinion was he was balking,” Yost said. “The umpires are going to have to keep their eye on that. It’s a good move, but he was breaking his front knee and coming back to first base, which is a balk.”

Ok. For what it’s worth, those were the first pickoffs in Feliz’s major league career. If he learned a pickoff move, maybe he learned it during his DL stint at the end of April.

The next inning, Feliz gives up two singles to, uh, Mitch Maier and Alcides Escobar. Not exactly heavy hitters (despite Maier’s hot start). He then walked Alex Gordon, a somewhat excusable action, considering Gordon’s fair batting eye, a rarity in KC…for now…

Arthur Rhodes entered and got the Rangers out of the jam. But what a great question. Did Feliz learn a tricksy balk-like pickoff move? If so, and the umps don’t catch it, one of the majors’ best relievers just got even more difficult.

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