It hasn't been an easy three years for Neftali Feliz.
After exploding onto the Rangers scene in 2009, firing 100 MPH fastballs and 90 MPH changeups, Feliz went on to win the Rangers' closer job in the first two weeks of 2010 and the American League Rookie of the Year. His meteoric rise to being considered one of the best relievers in the league validated his ranking as the top prospect in the Rangers' system for two consecutive seasons by Baseball America.
In 2011, Feliz still held down the Rangers' closer job, though in less dominant fashion. His success rate at closing games went from 40/43 on save opportunities in 2010 to 32/38 in 2011. His SO/9 rate dropped from 9.2 to 7.8, while his BB/9 rate nearly doubled from 2.3 to 4.3. His 2011 ERA was nearly identical to 2010, but there were cracks appearing in the previously pristine portrait of Neftali Feliz as the Rangers' closer.
That reduced dominance culminated in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Feliz's most infamous moment yet. Up until Game 6, Feliz had pitched in all ten of the Rangers' postseason victories, firing 10.1 innings, allowing just three hits and one run, though walking seven, and striking out ten. He held playoff opponents to a miniscule .097/.282/.097 line through those first ten games. But then, with Texas going for that deciding victory number 11, staked to a two-run lead in the 9th inning, Feliz went strikeout-double-walk-strikeout-triple, failing to put David Freese away on a 1-2 pitch, blowing the biggest save opportunity of his career.
After the Rangers' World Series loss, there were rumors and whispers that Feliz was so shaken following that 9th inning that he could not go back out to the mound for the 10th inning to protect the two-run lead the Rangers had regained in the top of the inning. That underlying narrative of a lack of a closer's makeup has followed Feliz since then.
Perhaps looking for a fresh start in 2012, Feliz converted to the starting rotation, posting a 3.16 ERA in seven starts (though also issuing 4.9 BB/9 and only pitching past the sixth inning twice) before being shut down by an injury, which eventually led to Tommy John surgery on August 1, 2012.
Feliz made it back to the big league mound on September 1, 2013, working out of the bullpen in six relatively low leverage appearances for Texas before the end of the season. Feliz didn't surrender a run in those six appearances, though his fastball velocity was 94.2 mph, a full three ticks of the radar gun off of his 2011 velocity of 97.2 mph, the last time he worked out of a big league bullpen. Lower velocity is typical for players recovering from Tommy John surgery, particularly at just 13 months after surgery.
After the 2013 season, Feliz played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and reportedly hit 97 or 98 mph on the radar gun. With that kind of velocity, many deemed Feliz the favorite to be the Texas closer in 2014 entering Spring Training.
However, the reality of Feliz's progression back to his full form was quite different, as his fastball velocity averaged a tick under 92 mph during Spring Training, and Feliz ended up not even breaking camp with the big league club when the season began.
Since then, Feliz battled to regain effectiveness at Triple-A Round Rock, pitching 28.2 innings with a 3.14 ERA, with 9.7 SO/9 and 2.5 BB/9 before getting recalled back to the majors on July 4, and being reinstated as the Rangers' closer after Joakim Soria was traded on July 24.
Feliz has posted a 2.45 ERA this season and converted four of five save opportunities, despite an abysmal 5.4 SO/9. He is finding a way to survive and generate results, even though his fastball velocity still only averages 93 MPH, topping out at 97 MPH but only occasionally reaching that level.
In Feliz's 2010 Rookie of the Year campaign, he threw 83 percent fastballs, 15 percent sliders, and 2 percent changeups. His fastball averaged 98 mph, and his slider was a sweeping 80 mph frisbee. This year, Feliz is throwing just 70 percent fastballs, 15 percent sliders, and 15 percent changeups. He is working the slider against right-handed hitters (23 percent), and the changeup against lefties (21 percent). The fastball and changeup velocity is down compared to where Feliz has previously been, but the slider is actually up to 82 mph now, and has about five inches less of horizontal movement but five inches of additional drop now.
He has done a good job of adjusting, even if he hasn't regained his once-dominant form. His 5.04 FIP in 2014 belies the otherwise successful numbers he is posting. However, as long as he keeps finding ways to get outs and rebuild whatever confidence may have been lost or shattered by Game 6 and Tommy John surgery, it will help to bring some meaning to a meaningless Rangers' season.
With all he has gone through in the last three years, it is easy to forget that Feliz is still just 26 years old. There was no earlier time at which it made sense to bring him back to the majors in 2014, but because Feliz was in the minors until July 4, as Scott Lucas of the Newberg Report astutely pointed out, the Rangers will have one extra year of control over their once top prospect, as his service time accrued will delay his free agency until after the 2016 season.
Feliz has had his share of critics, particularly since the 2011 season. His psyche has been called into question, and his dedication to his rehab and staying in shape attacked. It doesn't look like he'll ever return to pitching like an All-Star closer again, and he hasn't done anything to guarantee he'll be the Rangers' closer in 2015, but he deserves credit for going through excruciating struggles for the last three years to get to where he is now. The Rangers have had a run of success of reinstating Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria to the closer job after Tommy John surgery. Now, Neftali Feliz has put himself in position to give Texas its next candidate to continue that trend.