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Looking At Michael Feliz’s Pitch Movement

David Slusser

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Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Michael Feliz has struggled lately, and part of the reason is the pitch movement on his main two pitches.  After a couple of years of underperforming his run estimators, Feliz is more inline this year.

Entering the season, the Pirates brought Feliz over in the Gerrit Cole trade.  At the time, Feliz looked like a power arm, something the Pirates love, and was slotted into the seventh inning role.  On the surface, his 4.57 runs allowed per nine (RA9) in 2016 and 5.81 RA9 in 2017 made the decision curious.

What encouraged the Pirates, however, was his 35.2 percent and 32.1 percent strikeout rates in those years.  Those strikeout rates helped Feliz produced deserved runs averages (DRA), a runs allowed estimator on the RA9 scale, of 2.31 and 2.67 in 2016 and 2017.  Feliz was underperforming his estimators by a wide margin, 2.26 runs and 3.14 runs per nine innings respectively.

Having the DRA number is nice, but having the components help the understanding.  For Feliz, his hit runs above average in 2016 and more average in 2017.  In 2017, while Feliz did allow 3.7 percent of plate appearances to end in home runs, overall only 6.3 percent of plate appearances against Feliz ended in an extra base hit (league average was about 7.98 percent).

And those strikeout rates really helped in the not in play (NIP) runs.  Feliz was missing bats, having a 13.6 percent and 14.2 percent swinging strike rate in 2016 and 2017, to the point in which it far outweighed his 8.2 and 10.1 percent walk rates (league average walk rates were 8.2 and 8.5 percent).

The one area in which Feliz struggled in DRA’s components were the out runs, mainly because of his inability to get ground balls, getting balls hit on the ground at rates of just 42.1 and 31.0 percent in 2016 and 2017.  Overall, these were the components of Feliz’s DRA in his two years prior to joining the Pirates:

 

Year NIP Runs Hit Runs Out Runs
2016 -10.3 -3.2 5.2
2017 -7.9 -0.6 5.0

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates thought they were getting a pitcher who was pitching better than his RA9 because of his ability to produce swinging strikes and getting strikeouts, which would outweigh the balls in play, primarily the direction.

However, what the Pirates have seen so far is a pitcher with a 5.87 RA9, and that’s before his outing on Sunday which has caused Feliz’s RA9 to climb to 6.08.  Sure, relievers are fickle, and Feliz from April 1st through May 20th (his second to 22nd outings) had allowed just two runs in 20 innings, or a 0.90 RA9.  And over his last five outings, including Sunday, Feliz has a 25.55 RA9.  He was neither as good as he was in the good stretch, and he’s certainly not as bad as he’s been in the last five.

In that time of good, Feliz had a 33.3 percent strikeout rate and 7.7 percent walk rate, both incredibly good, but he was getting a swinging strike at just a 9.8 percent clip.  Feliz, while getting a good rate of strikeouts, wasn’t missing the bats like he was in the past.  In this period of bad, Feliz has just a strikeout of 16 percent.

Add up the good and the bad, and Feliz had a 5.41 RA9 entering Sunday.  His 28.4 percent strikeout rate and 23.0 percent groundball rate currently sit as lows for his three-year stretch, and his 10.8 percent walk rate sits as a high.  Allowing the extra base hit 9.8 percent of the time hasn’t helped his hit runs (1.4) and this decrease in strikeouts and increase in walks has hurt his NIP run component (-0.4).

Part of what made Feliz good in his run was getting back to the slider, but after throwing the pitch 30.83 percent of the time in 2016 according to Brooks Baseball, he’s down to 27.74 percent and 23.88 percent the last two years.

While his fastballs are up and sliders are down, his velocity is also down by about a half mile per hour on the slider and fastball.  Part of that can be the cold, and I don’t think it’s necessarily all of the reason for his recent struggles.  It plays it’s part, but it’s something Greg Brown mentioned on Sunday, where he talked about Hurdle saying that the Pirates need Feliz to get his slider more sharp than it currently is.

Pitch Movement

Compared to last year, Feliz is getting horizontal movement on his slider and less vertical.  But his fastball is moving less arm side:

Slider
Year Horizontal Vertical
2017 0.236 0.415
2018 0.377 0.409
Fastball
Year Horizontal Vertical
2017 -0.533 1.536
2018 -0.338 1.513

But numbers are hard to interpret, especially gaining a mental image of how the pitches move.  By using the pitchRX package created by Carson Sievert, plotting the pitches based on different points provided by Statcast (Baseball Savant) can give a look at how the pitches look from the catchers point of view.  Here’s Feliz’s slider and fourseam on average from 2017 (the strike zone is based on the typical zone against left-handed batters, but the pitch movement is the average to all batters):

The slider had some vertical movement to it, more so than the 2018 slider, but that can also be seen in just the numbers.  Visually, here is what Feliz has looked like from the catchers point of view in 2018:

 

As seen the slider on average has moved less than in 2017, and same with the fastball.  You can see in 2018, Feliz’s fastball moves less back arm side.  Overlapping the two, to see the differences simultaneously and not going back and forth between 2017 and 2018, provides this look:

 

The purple dot is the 2018 slider and the dark red is the 2018 fastball.  For 2017, the pink dot is the slider and the teal dot is the fastball.  The fastballs start off in a similar location, and you can see that the teal dot breaks back more glove side (left of 0 on the x-axis) than the red dot does as it is coming towards the center of the catcher’s view poing.  Similar with the slider, the pink dot breaks more down arm side (right of 0 on the x-axis) than the purple dot does.  Getting these two pitches to break back to what they were doing would be a big help going forward.

The less movement and leaving pitches more down the middle play their share in Feliz generating less swinging strikes and strikeouts so far in 2018 compared to past years.  The Pirates expected Feliz to be a late inning arm because his estimators were much better than his actual RA9.  But by walking more batters and striking out less, Feliz hasn’t been that pitcher he was with the Astros and part of that falls on to the way his pitches move.

*Numbers from Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Savant

Currently a student at Kent State University studying economics and computer information systems. Incorporating the game with video while using numbers in a traditional and analytical mix.

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