"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." -- Song of Solomon 2:11-12
Ernie Harwell used to open every spring training by reading this passage on the radio. It's official. Spring training is here. We have all survived a long, tough offseason and are now on the precipice of actual, honest to goodness baseball games. No more Hot Stove shenanigans. No more "Will he or won't he" with any possible sale of the Astros. Now, we have baseball to talk about.
In that vein, I'm going to throw you a curveball. Instead of looking at Pitch F/X data for pitchers, I'm going to look at a hitter, Pedro Feliz. The most common refrain about Feliz this offseason has been that, while his hitting is terrible, he should be able to target the Crawford Boxes consistently enough to hit 20 home runs.
Call me a skeptic, but I need more data before I can take Ed Wade's word on something like this.
For those unfamiliar with his work, here is a quick primer on No. 77. The 35-year old was signed by the San Francisco Giants out of Azua, Dominican Republic in 1994. He spent the next seven seasons plugging away in the minors, hitting 78 home runs before being called up on September 5th for a cup of coffee with the Giants in 2000. Feliz played parts of the next three seasons with the Giants, but was blocked at third by the likes of Ramon Martinez, David Bell and Edgardo Alfonzo. Feliz finally won the job in 2004 and hit .276/.305/.485 with 22 home runs. Over his eight years with the Giants, Feliz hit .252/.288/.433 with 346 runs scored, 418 RBIs, 148 doubles, 19 triples and 109 home runs. In 2007, he joined the likes of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey by becoming the ninth Giant to hit 20 home runs in four consecutive seasons.
His OPS+ of 84 was not great, but his defense was good enough to make up the difference. Feliz averaged a UZR/150 of 23.3 over six season with the Giants starting in 2002. He also totaled 33.5 WAR with the Giants mainly on the strength of his defensive play. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies following the 2007 season on a two-year, 8.5 million dollar contract. In two seasons, Feliz posted a 2.8 WAR total with positive but much diminished UZR/150 numbers. In fact, Feliz didn't crack double-figures on his UZR total in either season with Philly. The biggest problem for Feliz is he posted his second lowest Batting Run total of his career in 2009, heading back into free agency.
The Astros, of course, signed him on December 10th to fill their hole at third base. After the jump are charts, charts and more charts as we try and figure out if Feliz will be a better hitter at Minute Maid Park.
First up, what pitches did Feliz see in 2009? Here's are the pitches he saw at least 100 of:
The big thing that jumps out of this chart is Feliz' Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde relationship with the slider. While he put more sliders in play by percentage than any other pitch, Feliz also whiffed more on sliders than all the rest. He saw a fair number of strikes on all four pitches, but swung at under half the fastballs he saw. The good thing here is Feliz made pretty good contact last season. His other whiff rates were under 10 percent and he can still hit a fastball pretty well.
Where did he hit those pitches? Here's his spray chart for 2009:
Two things immediately jump out. First, Feliz hits a ton of ground balls to the right side and may see defenses shift over on him this season. Secondly, his power has a definite range at this point. Most of his hits and outs fell into a band in the middle of the outfield. That's what you call 'doubles power' and probably won't be affected by the friendly confines of MMP. There were some outliers here and there, but what's also nice to see is how consistently Feliz hit to all fields.
So, these were the balls he put into play (his BABiP in 2009? .284). What about the ones he didn't swing at?
This is when I started to get suspicious about what kind of hitter Feliz can be. There are a bunch of pitches low and away that he didn't even swing at. That's the home of the slider and the Leo Mazzone special, so it's not uncommon for hitters to see a bunch of pitches there. What I am concerned about is a good number of those were called strikes. What that suggests is Feliz has a 'hole' in his strike zone right there. If I can see that, you better believe other teams can see that too.
As I was saying, the majority of the called strikes Feliz saw were low and away. But, which pitches were these? Let's isolate just the sliders first.
Feliz did swing at a bunch of sliders down in that exact quadrant. I looked at his take chart and it's less conclusive. The numbers were getting thin at that point and the data points were all over the zone. In other words, the slider was not the pitch he was taking low and away. In fact, it seems Feliz likes feasting on sliders, even if he misses his fair share of them. Here's a spray chart of his hits off sliders:
As you would expect, Feliz jerks that off-speed pitch to left field with surprising skill. Many of them fail to leave the infield, but he does get a fair share of singles and doubles to the outfield from this pitch. A couple of those hits might even have found the Boxes for home runs. At the very least, Feliz should have fun knocking those sliders off the big scoreboard in left and maybe legging out a double or two.
We're still left with the mystery of which pitch Feliz didn't offer at low and away. Let's look at the pitch he saw the most, a four-seam fastball. Here's his take chart on the pitch:
And there it is. Feliz doesn't like swinging at fastballs on the outside corner of the plate. There's a little triangle that pitchers seem to want to hit, extending down from the midpoint of the outside of the zone to the midpoint of the bottom. Still, what did he do with the pitches he did swing at?
Unsurprisingly, most of his hits were to the opposite field. Pitchers pounding the outside half of the strike zone with fastballs can be burned by the hitter going the other way. You can see that most of Feliz' infield hits to the right side came off fastballs. This is a little troublesome, but I'll explain more in a minute. What also should be pointed out is that Feliz hit most of those fastballs away from left. Since the fastball was the pitch he saw most often in 2009, why are we expecting him to crush tons of home runs into that short porch in left?
As a comparison, here's the spray chart for curveballs:
Notice most of these were pulled, though none of them were hit very deep. This makes me wonder if Feliz needs a little more velocity on the pitch to take it deep, rather than relying on bat speed and natural strength.
As enlightening as this data is, it's still a fairly small sample size. To get a solid scouting report, we have to look back a season to 2008's data:
The database back then didn't differentiate between four-seam and two-seam, so we're left with the more generic 'fastball.' Still, the numbers are surprisingly similar. Feliz whiffed more on all three breaking pitches but missed about the same on fastballs. His percentage swings at curves went up, as did his balls in play percentage. The other big thing to note is that pitchers seemed to pound the strike zone a little more. A surprising 70 percent of the changeups Feliz saw were strikes. He also swung at almost 60 percent of those and missed on 14 percent. These are not good signs. Not only does he have a problem hitting a slider, but he also can get fooled by a good changeup.
Did his spray chart differ much from 2009, though?
If anything, you can tell Feliz tended to pull more pitches two years ago than he did last season. He had a bit more pop, extending that band of hits and outs in the outfield a few feet. There's still not compelling evidence that he will be helped out much by the ballpark. He also had a ton of hits to the left side of the infield, but put enough in play towards second to avoid the shift.
If his hits fell into a different pattern, does that mean pitchers weren't pounding that lower outside corner?
Nope, he still had the same number of called strikes in that specific zone as last season. If there was no real change in how he was pitched to, was there a change in where he hit those fastballs?
This isn't good. It's fair to suppose that Feliz was just reacting to how he was being pitched in 2009, going to the opposite field with fastballs away. But, here we see that pitchers had the same approach in 2008 and he was able to hit to all fields, still pulling his share of fastballs to left.
This next chart shows that he swung at the same types of sliders, down in the zone, as he did in 2009.
Nothing much has changed there. He knows what he likes when it comes to the slider but he doesn't always connect.
The curveball is the same way.
When I uploaded this chart, I had to look twice since to make sure I hadn't used the same chart twice. No, it's different, but almost exactly the same as in 2009. Feliz can't really drive a curve, but is able to pull it consistenly to left field.
Conclusions? I'm worried that Feliz has lost bat speed. The difference between his 2008 and 2009 hit charts for fastballs is markedly different. Since there was no big change in how he was being pitched, this was either an adjustment on his part to be more successful or to cover up his lack of bat quickness. If his bat has slowed, it does nothing to help Wade's contention that he could hit 20 homers in MMP. In fact, it may cause his numbers to drop some from 2009 (.266/.308/.386) even as it caused his BABiP to uptick from 2008 (.256 to .284).
Feliz can hit off-speed stuff and seemed to recognize the changeup a little better in 2009. However, he is a year older and declining skills are a very real part of aging in baseball. If his ability to hit for a better average revolves around him recognizing this decline and compensating for it by going the other way, does that make up for his lack of on-base ability? Let me put it to you another way. If Feliz can hit .270 with 25 doubles instead of 20 home runs, does that make him a more valuable third baseman than the Astros had last season?