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May 4, 2008

Future Shock

Bearing Down on Neftali Feliz

by Kevin Goldstein

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It's been a good first month of the minor league season on a personal level--in less than four weeks, I've been able to see three No. 1 prospects. Royals' infielder Mike Moustakas disappointed (and continues to struggle), and Arizona right-hander Jarrod Parker wasn't fantastic but showed plenty of potential. Number three came on Friday night, as the Clinton LumberKings came to visit Kane County and opened the series by starting right-hander Neftali Feiliz, the lightning-armed Dominican who came over from the Braves in the Mark Teixeira trade who was also celebrating his 20th birthday. For the third straight time, I also got lucky, because with ominous skies and storms approaching, I initially set up in the press box for the game, only to quickly see a friend from the scouting community waving at me from five rows behind home plate. Access to radar gun readings and professional opinions while I watch? I'll put up with some wind and rain.

From the Parker piece, here's a reminder on how to read my pitch charts: First, a quick primer on how I track pitches. This is not how teams do it or anything official, this is just how I keep track when I have access to gun readings. Basically, each notation has three pieces on information: TYPE-VELO-RESULT. Under Type, FB is fastball, CU is curveball, is slider; CH is changeup; Velo is simple enough. Under Result, 'b' stands for ball, 's' for swinging strike, 'c' is a called strike, 'f' a foul ball, and 'x' is a ball in play. So, an 81 mph slider taken for a strike is SL81c.

So let's get right to this. The first thing the struck me was Feliz' size. Listed at six-foot-three, he's more like six-foot-even, maybe six-foot-one. He's lean, and well-proportioned, throwing from a three-quarters arm slot. His mechanics are clean, easy, loose, and effortless.

First Inning

Shane Keough: FB92c, FB92b, FB92B, FB94x = Hard single to LF
OK, the guy can throw hard, and he's either completely effortless, or just warming up. The last heater was right down the pipe--a pitch nearly any pro can hit.

Christian Vitters: FB92b, FB93b, FB92x = 6-4-3 double play
Two batters in, and still nothing but fastballs. Right before the twin killing, I ask the scout if he has any concerns about Feliz' arm angle. As soon as the two outs are recorded, he turns to me and says, "Nope."

Greg Dowling: FB93b, FB95s, FB93f, CH87c = strikeout
And there's the secondary pitch. In the Feliz write-up on the Rangers Top 11 Prospect list, I categorized his changeup as being a 'work in progress'; the work is going well. The pitch is still a little hard, and could use more separation, but it features late tumbling action and left Dowling frozen.

Second Inning

Corey Brown: FB90b, FB93f, FB95s, CH84s = strikeout
Two strikeouts, both on changeups. "That one was just nasty," notes the scout.

Matt Smith: FB94c, SL79b, FB94s, FB95c = strikeout
The slider was a decent pitch, not great, but it has decent break. With the fastball he's showing here, he doesn't need this to be more than a 'show me' pitch at this point.

Toddric Johnson: CH84b, FB94s, FB94f, FB94s = strikeout
Prior to the game, the scout asked me for my thoughts on Feliz, and I mentioned some occasional control lapses. After the third strikeout of the inning, the scout put down his gun and said, "So where are these control issues you talked about?" Feliz was absolutely untouchable this inning. The one changeup he threw was a true out pitch, the fastball had outstanding location and a little bit of sinking life, and hitters were clearly frustrated.

Third Inning

Gustavo Rosendo: FB92x = single to LF
A first-pitch fastball, not one of the hardest variety, and Rosendo simply smacked it.

Larry Cobb: FB94s, FB94f, FB94f, FB93f, FB94x = single to LF
This was a groundball in the hole, not great contact, and Rosendo got to third because of an earlier passed ball.

Walter Correa: FB94b, SL78c, FB94f, FB96s = strikeout
The first pitch was another passed ball by catcher Jose Felix, who really struggled defensively. The strikeout pitch was not only 96 mph, but right on lower half of the inner corner of the plate--basically an untouchable pitch. As an aside, radar guns are delicate, highly sensitive devices. For a couple of pitches in this at-bat, the scout would get a reading of 51 before the pitch was thrown because it was picking up the Metra train running behind left field.

Before the leadoff man stepped to the plate, the scout noted, "Here's where it gets fun. Second time through the order and he's established the fastball, so he's going to start with the mind-[screw]."

Shane Keough: CH86c, CH86x = single to left past diving third baseman, run scores.
Starting Keough off with a pair of changeups is definitely a change of pace; give Keough credit for staying with the pitch and grounding one through the hole. The passed balls make this an unearned run.

Christian Vitters: FB94b, FB93f, FB94b, FB96f, FB95s = strikeout
Have a nice day. This was basically Feliz saying here's my fastball, go ahead and hit it--and Vitters couldn't.

Fourth Inning

Greg Dowling: FB93b, FB92x = 6-3 groundout
Back to the fastballs...

Corey Brown: FB94f, FB95f, FB96s = strikeout
... of the fast, faster, and fastest variety.

Matt Smith: SL79b, FB93b, FB95x = F9
The slider was a ball, but also maybe his best of the night, based on break.

Fifth Inning

Toddric Johnson: FB92x = infield single to the right side
Looking fastball, Johnson got a good-not-great one and hit it. That said, that ball in play would be an out with a big league defense. He'd be caught stealing in the next at-bat.

Gustavo Rosendo: SL76b, SL78s, FB95s, SL78x = F7
More sliders, and better ones than those in the earlier innings. Feliz definitely likes to break it out of the strike zone consistently, and doesn't show a ton of confidence in the pitch.

Larry Cobb: CH84b, CH87s, FB95s, SL82b, FB96x = Double to CF
The hardest-hit ball against him comes off his top velocity pitch.

Walter Correa: FB96b, CH86b, FB96b, FB94b = Walk
Correa is the number nine hitter in the lineup, and isn't hitting his weight, so it's not like Feliz is avoiding him or anything. This has been Feliz's problem so far this year--he struggles in the middle innings. The good news is that the gun readings show that he's not running out of games, just running out of command, if that makes sense.

Shane Keough: FB93f, FB95b, FB93b, FB95f, FB94b, SL80s = strikeout
So much for not having confidence in the slider, as he throws it 3-2; Keough never saw it coming.

Final line: 5 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

One scout in attendance summed up the outing:

He was very impressive. The arm is electric, and he established his fastball early in the game. He certainly flashed some average breaking balls, and that changeup has a good chance to be plus. He should end up with average command and control, as he's smooth and repeats his delivery very well. The things I really liked was how he could turn it up a notch when he needed it--that's what big leaguers do.

At the end of the 2006 season, I ranked Feliz as the No. 3 prospect in the Braves system, a decision that was met with mockery and derision by some. A year later, despite the fact that he pitched just 42 1/3 innings in 2007, he was suddenly in everybody's Top 10 lists, and in a loaded Rangers system as well. I ranked him No. 1 this time, which was once again met with mockery and derision. After seeing him in person and getting thoughts from the scouts in attendance, I stand by the ranking.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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