Neftali Feliz and the Missing Velocity

Tim Cowlishaw has a piece up today in which he voices some concern over the bullpen in 2014. More specifically, he addresses concern that if Tanner Scheppers ends up in the starting rotation, that the late-inning status of the bullpen will become a major question mark.

Considering that virtually every piece not named Joe Nathan -- who was allowed to walk away and sign a big-money deal with Detroit -- is returning, I'm not so sure the level of concern as a whole should be so high. Then again, relief pitchers can vary in effectiveness from year to year.

Allowing Nathan to walk away was a no-brainer in my mind. Detroit gave him a guaranteed two years at $20 million, with a club option for the third year. With all of the pieces the Rangers have in place, it no longer made sense to throw that kind of money at a 39-year-old closer.

The area of intrigue -- or concern, depending on how you perceive the actual value of closers in today's game -- has been the competition for closing duties. While Scheppers is auditioning for a role in the rotation, he's also in the conversation to be the Rangers closer along with Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz. Of the three, the status of Feliz concerns me the most.

Even if he doesn't end up being the go-to closer, Feliz figures to be an important part of the bullpen picture in 2014. Another year removed from Tommy John surgery, he's been expected to regain much of his arm strength and command. Which is why the developments thus far in Spring Training are, at the very least, slightly concerning.

Thus far, Feliz is missing his velocity. While no one is necessarily expecting the 99-100mph he routinely clocked from 2009-2011, 92mph is definitely short of expectations. When you factor in reports that Feliz was clocked in the mid-90's during winter ball, things get a bit more complicated.

Now, chances are that within a week or two, it's a non-issue and Feliz has been simply working his way slowly up to speed, but until then, it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Below, you'll see a heat map that shows opposing hitter contact rates against Feliz in 2011.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information

And now, for 2013.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information

As you can see, in 2013, Feliz wasn't quite back up to par. Hitters made more contact up in the zone, whereas before his injury, Feliz was often able to blow hitters away up in the zone with his fastball.

Given that he's never exhibited any kind of sustained success with offspeed offerings, Feliz is a pitcher that, in a relief role, relies on velocity and inducing whiffs in order to be effective.

Again, this probably isn't really an issue. But it's Spring Training, and if nothing else, we need to find things to freak out about. That's probably what this is. Nonetheless, it will be worth watching to see if Neftali Feliz is able to work his way back toward something close to his old self. If he's able to get back to that, he'll be an effective piece of the bullpen. If not, however, then we could be seeing more of this conversation as we dive into the regular season.