Forgotten Pittsburgh Pirates: Neftali Feliz


Once one of the best relief pitchers in the league, Neftali Feliz was part of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen in 2016. But his tenure was short and forgotten the past few seasons.

After a 98-win run in 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates did not follow up in 2016 with a great season. They fell to 78-83, and failed to reach .500 in the last week of the season. One of the many forgotten Pirates of that season was right handed relief pitcher Neftali Feliz.

Feliz was originally an outstanding closer for the Texas Rangers, winning American League Rookie of the Year and making the All-Star game in 2010. That season, Feliz had a 2.73 ERA, 2.96 FIP and 0.88 WHIP in 69.1 innings of work. But by the time he made his way to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016, Feliz had fallen from grace. Feliz was solid but unimpressive in 2011, and missed nearly all of 2012 and 2013. In those two seasons, Feliz actually was experimented with as a starting pitcher, but it didn’t work out.

In 2014, things looked to be getting better for Feliz as he stayed healthy enough to pitch in 31.2 innings. Although he had a 1.99 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, the former AL Rookie of the Year gave up five home runs, and posted mediocre strikeout (17.2%) and walk (9.5%) rates. That led Feliz to having a 4.90 FIP, 4.40 SIERA and 5.42 DRA. Plus with a 100% left on base rate, something that even the best, and most clutch relief pitchers in baseball can’t sustain, Feliz was one of the biggest regression candidates going into 2015.

In 2015, the numbers caught up to Feliz. In 48 innings split between the Rangers, and eventually the Detroit Tigers after he was released mid-season, Feliz had a 6.38 ERA while his SIERA (4.10) and DRA (5.39) stayed pretty much the same from 2014. While he did strikeout more batters with an 18.4% rate, and walked fewer with a 9% rate, Feliz’s opponent batting average was .295. He did see renewed life in his fastball as it averaged out at 95.7 MPH, the highest mark since his 2012 season.

So at the lowest point of his career, Feliz had to settle for a minor league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Feliz got off to a pretty good start to the season. In his first 40 innings, Feliz had a 3.15 ERA/3.98 FIP with an opponent OPS of just .652.

However, Feliz struggled in the second half of the season.

His ERA jumped to 4.61 and his FIP was 6.16. Plus he missed most of September due to injury. However, Feliz’s fastball that once sat in the mid-97’s was sitting at 96.9 MPH. In the one and only season Feliz played as a Pirate, he tossed 53.2 innings of 3.52 ERA, 4.57 FIP, and 1.14 WHIP baseball. While he did strikeout 28% of the batters he faced, he also walked them at a mediocre rate of 9.6%. Home runs were a massive issue as he surrendered 10 resulting in a 1.7 HR/9.

Maybe Feliz’s career was finally on the upward trend as even his ERA estimators like his SIERA (3.36), xFIP (3.72) and DRA (3.97) pointed to improvement from his previous seasons.

After his brief tenure in Pittsburgh, Feliz managed to catch on with the Milwaukee Brewers where they inserted him as their closer for the 2017 season. But it seemed the injury Feliz had at the end of 2016 would plague him in 2017. In the 27 innings he was a Brewer, Feliz surrendered 18 earned runs on 23 hits including eight home runs. After posting a strikeout rate of nearly 30%, that dropped below 20% at 18.3%. He also walked 15 batters resulting in a weak 1.4 K/BB ratio. Feliz was released by the Brewers and made his way to Kansas City where he produced much better numbers. Despite his 4.74 ERA, Feliz had a 3.58 FIP and 1.32 WHIP in 19 innings. He only gave up one home run too.

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But despite ending 2017 on a high note, Feliz has not pitched in the Majors since that season. After a rough 2018 season with the Diamondbacks Triple-A affiliate where he served as a swing-man, Feliz hasn’t played within any major league club’s system. Feliz just turned 32 at the beginning of May, and he appeared in 6 innings in the Dominican Winter league this past off season, so maybe the former Pirate isn’t done just yet.