Neftali Feliz taking right approach
Continuing to work on secondary pitches key to ex-closer excelling as starter
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One eight-pitch at-bat Wednesday afternoon in the first inning of yet another forgettable spring training game showed us exactly why the Texas Rangers put Neftali Feliz in the starting rotation.
And why he's going to get every opportunity -- and then some -- to succeed.
Feliz snuffed Troy Tulowitzki, a two-time All-Star with a .293 career batting average, with some dazzling off-speed pitches.
We know Feliz has immense talent because we've seen it regularly during the past three seasons as he racked up saves and dominated hitters with a fastball that regularly nears triple digits.
But if Feliz is going to excel as a starter, he must successfully execute his curveball, slider and changeup.
Otherwise, he'll return to the bullpen in a year or two.
Feliz understands this, so he's been throwing his off-speed pitches frequently to ensure he gets enough confidence in the pitches to throw them in any count. Otherwise, hitters will sit on his fastball.
No matter how hard Feliz throws, if major league hitters are waiting for it, they will mash his fastball.
Feliz threw 47 pitches -- 32 for strikes -- in the Rangers' 6-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies.
He threw first-strike pitches to seven of the 12 batters he faced and had only three three-ball counts. More important, he threw only 20 fastballs; the other 27 pitches were comprised of curveballs, sliders and changeups.
That's why Tulowitzki looked so bad in his first at-bat.
Feliz buckled Tulowitzki's knees with a slider that grabbed the outside corner, evening the count at 1-1. After a fastball missed, Tulowitzki swung through a changeup.
Then Tulowitzki fouled off a fastball and a slider before his feeble attempt to hit a Feliz changeup.
"I had confidence in it, and I threw it," Feliz said. "I have to feel confident in my other pitches. I know I can't rely on my fastball all of the time. I have to use my other pitches to get outs."
Maybe, as he enters his fourth season in the big leagues, Feliz gets it.
In the second inning, Feliz worked his way out of jam, after Colorado collected three consecutive hits, by inducing Brendan Harris to hit into a 4-6-3 double play on a changeup.
In the third inning, Tulowitzki grounded into an inning-ending double play on a changeup.
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Those are the types of pitches Feliz must consistently use to become a steady member of the rotation this season.
If he falls in love with strikeouts, his pitch counts will soar and he'll find himself yanked from games in the fifth or sixth inning. The Rangers hope he's regularly pitching into the seventh inning.
Feliz's slider runs across the strike zone to right-handed batters, while his curveball has more depth to it. When he started in the minor leagues, Feliz had a high-quality changeup.
He's using spring training to regain a feel for it, since he's used it sparingly the past few seasons.
"Feliz pitched well today," manager Ron Washington said. "I liked the way he used the whole strike zone and all of his pitches. He's learning that he can throw the ball low in the zone, and get ground balls and outs."
Just like it would be foolish to overreact to Yu Darvish's subpar outing Tuesday, it would be wrong to think Feliz is on his way to 15 wins after three good innings against Colorado.
His next two starts will tell us much more. He'll work four innings or 65 pitches, followed by five innings or 80 pitches, which will force him to go through an entire lineup more than once.
Hitters will have an opportunity to adjust to his off-speed pitches, and they'll have a better understanding of his pitch sequence. Against Colorado, he threw a lot of off-speed pitches early in the count, allowing him to get ahead.
It's one thing for Feliz to throw off-speed pitches in critical situations in spring training and quite another to do it in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium during the regular season.
But he's headed down the right path.
Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.