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Farmhands Firsthand: Michael Feliz, July 12 2013

USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, July 12 of 2013, I was able to get an in-person look at Astros' righthanded starting pitching prospect Michael Feliz as he pitched for the Tri-City ValleyCats of the New York-Penn League versus the Cleveland Indians’ Mahoning Valley Scrappers affiliate. My accounts and observations follow after I set the stage for the night.

Background

Michael Feliz

Feliz signed with the Oakland Athletics as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in March of 2010 at 16 years of age and was set to receive a $800K bonus, but the Athletics voided the contract after he immediately tested positive for a banned performance enhancer. Two months later, the Astros signed Feliz for a $400K bonus. After serving a 50-game suspension for the failed MLB-administered test, Feliz logged a dozen innings with the Dominican Summer League Astros. Feliz came stateside to open 2011 and spent all of that year in Kissimmee. Pitching for the short-season rookie-level Gulf Coast League team, Feliz posted a 4.32 ERA and 9.5 H/9IP over 50 innings spanning 12 appearances with a 3.8 BB/9IP and a 7.9 K/9IP. He opened 2012 again with the Gulf Coast League team and pitched impressively over 38+ innings (1.64 ERA, 5.9 H/9IP, 2.1 BB/9IP, 8.2 K/9IP), earning a late July promotion to the Astros’ advanced rookie-level Greeneville team in the Appalachian League where he found the sledding much tougher (26+ innings, 5.13 ERA, 9.6 H/9IP, 4.8 BB/9IP, 9.6 K/9IP). That Feliz was assigned to the short-season A ball Tri-City affiliate in June to begin the short-season campaign was a very good sign, and to this game Feliz had not disappointed posting a 1.34 ERA, 4.0 H/9IP, 1.3 BB/9IP, and 11.2 K/9IP over 20+ innings while starting 3 of the 4 games. Feliz was 19.8 years old as of July 2013, with the average league pitcher being 21.5, and is currently listed at 6’4" and 210 pounds per his milb bio. Feliz would be allowed to throw no more than 5 frames this evening, as 2013 2nd-round pick Andrew Thurman was scheduled to piggyback behind him.

Mahoning Valley Offense

The Indians do not have an affiliate between their transitional Arizona League rookie team and this one, so in contrast to what typically happens in the Astros’ system the Indians’ international free agent signees and high school draftees jump straight to short-season A ball upon graduating from the transitional rookie team. Of the 9 batters in the lineup versus Feliz, 5 were international free agent signees from 2010 or 2011, 2 were 2012 high school draftees, 1 was a 2013 draftee from a major college program, and 1 was a 23-year-old undrafted free agent from a small college. That left a lineup which averaged 20.4 years of age, in a league where the average hitter is 21.0 years of age. Only one of the 9 batters to face the righty Feliz hit lefthanded.

The Game

Inning 1

The leadoff batter lined a 2nd-pitch 92 mph fastball up the middle and it fell in shallow center for a single, quickly forcing Feliz into the stretch. The 2nd batter fouled off a 92 mph 1st-pitch fastball on a bunt attempt then saw 4 more fastballs at 94 or 95 mph lining the 5th at the rightfielder who caught the ball; a potential double play opportunity went awry when the throw to first sailed high then skipped past the catcher backing up the play, allowing the runner to advance to second. Feliz began the third batter with a pair of 96 mph fastballs to move the count to 0-2, followed up with a pair of sliders of which one was fouled off, and then threw two fastballs at 96 and 95 to induce a foul pop to first. Two 95 mph fastballs quickly disposed of the cleanup hitter on a slow grounder to short.

Inning 2

Batter 1, the 4-year college draftee, walked on 10 pitches fouling off multiple fastballs as Feliz started the plate appearance with 8 of them; the 1st and 3rd registered 92 mph on the guns with the rest in the typical range for the evening of 94 to 96. That leadoff walk again forced Feliz into the stretch and he quickly retired of the next batter, the lone lefthander, on a one-pitch 3-6 forceout where the double play relay got away at first without an advance. The third batter, an international free agent from the Czech Republic, also worked the count seeing 9 pitches and lined the final fastball directly to the leftfielder (no check swings in that sequence, regrettably). The fourth and final batter swung and missed at consecutive sliders after taking a fastball for a strike on the first pitch.

Inning 3

The first hitter lined a first-pitch fastball into shallow right. So again, Feliz was thrust back to the stretch position. Now back to the top of the order, the leadoff man struck out swinging at a 5th-pitch slider after fouling one off on the prior offering. The next batter flew out on a second-pitch fastball just left of straightaway center whereas the next lined a 95 mph heater up the middle into shallow centerfield with the 1st base runner pulling up at second. That brought up the burly cleanup hitter (a 2012 high school draftee who would later homer off Thurman) with ducks on the pond, but he swung and missed at a 4th-pitch fastball to end the frame.

Inning 4

The fifth hitter led off, and after walking on 10 pitches the previous time he needed only 1 pitch grounding a 95 mph fastball up the middle which was cut off by second baseman Tony Kemp who simply ate the ball with no play possible at first. So for the 4th straight inning of 4 on the night, Feliz was in the stretch by the time the second batter strode to the plate. That brought up the lone lefty, and he too jumped on the first pitch fastball hitting a tailor-made 4-6-3 double play grounder to Kemp. The Czech followed and lined a 3rd-pitch fastball into shallow right for a single. But the next batter, a 2012 high school draftee, struck out swinging on a slider to end the 4th just as he had to end the 2nd.

Inning 5

Feliz’ first batter fortunes changed here as the 9th-place hitter was frozen by a slider on the 5th offering for a strikeout looking. The leadoff man then struck out swinging at another 5th-pitch slider. And not to be outdone, the next batter saw just 3 pitches in striking out on 3 straight sliders, swinging and whiffing at the final two to end Feliz’ evening in grand style with four consecutive strikeouts.

Statistical Outcomes

  • 5 innings, 5 hits (5 singles), 0 runs, 1 BB, 7 K (6 swinging)
  • 77 pitches: 58 strikes (75% strike%), 19 balls
  • 58 strikes: 12 swings and misses (28% swings and misses on swings), 15 called, 19 fouled off, 12 balls in play
  • 12 balls in play: 4 groundballs, 1 infield flyball, 1 outfield flyball, 6 line drives

Pitch Type

Typical Velocity

% of Pitches Thrown

% Strikes on Pitches

% Swings and Misses on Swings

Fastball

94 to 96 mph

61%

74%

8%

Slider

79 to 82 mph

35%

79%

83%

Changeup

82 to 86 mph

4%

33%

-


Just to put the table numbers into perspective, the bolded stats are rather exceptional by minor league and level standards. The percentage of swings and misses at the fastball is a bit low and the percentage of line drives on batted balls is very high, with at least 11 of the 12 batted balls coming on fastballs.


Other Considerations
The velocity readings grew sparser as the radar guns within eyesight were increasingly holstered as the night wore on, but from the readings available Feliz did seem to maintain his 94 to 96 mph fastball velocity through the fifth. Feliz saw only one lefthanded batter (two one-pitch plate appearances), so it would be natural to question how effective the slider may play versus lefties and to wonder whether he would have sprinkled in more changeups if he had had more of them to contend with. He pitched the bulk of the game from the stretch, as the first batter reached first in the first 4 of the 5 frames. In spite of that, I didn’t log him as making a pick-off throw to first so he may have a bit of an aversion to that at present. Feliz throws from a typical three-quarterish arm slot but with a somewhat unique rearward and inward leg kick, at least from the stretch.


Overall Impressions
Considering what little those of us who follow prospects knew about Feliz coming into the season, Feliz exceeded my expectations. There aren’t many 19-year-olds in professional baseball consistently throwing their fastball 94 to 96 mph and still fewer doing it from a starting role and even fewer with the extreme level of control that Feliz is showing. Then tack on what had the look of a plus, difficult-to-contact slider that Feliz commanded well this evening, and Feliz may well be on his way towards developing 2 future major-league-caliber pitches. The downside with the fastball was that in spite of its excellent and sustained velocity, there were relatively few swings and misses at it and there were a half-dozen hard-hit liners to low flies off it (only one was pulled). That data suggests that the pitch lacks movement and/or deception in its present iteration. Feliz will encounter lineups that are more challenging than the one he faced on this evening (a disgruntled fan in the postgame urinal line a night earlier announced to all in earshot that these Scrappers' bats are the worst he’s seen there in 15 years), but the early returns from this appearance and the preceding four of 2013 are very positive from a statistical perspective.

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