It happens plenty in baseball. A young prospect comes up and busts into the majors with a promising rookie start. But often rookies are put in situations where they have time to feel the majors out and work their way up. But the few times when a rookie comes in and takes over a prominent role on a team, and performs at an All-Star level, it is really something fun to watch over a whole season. Rangers pitcher Neftali Feliz had one of those amazing rookie seasons this year, and was recognized Monday as the American League Rookie of the Year. The fastball pitching youngster became a key part of the Rangers success this season, and also grew a lot as a young pitcher.
Feliz came into the spring camps looking like a young prospect that would impress some, but most likely start the season down in the minors. He wanted to be a starting pitcher, but besides his blazing fastball he really did not have much else. But he impressed enough to end up on the opening day roster in the bullpen, and it was assumed he would be a late inning guy that could come in to face 2-3 batters at a time and get some experience this season. But after original closer Frank Francisco struggled mightily over the opening couple of weeks and blew multiple saves, the Rangers made one crazy decision that would change the season for Neftali and help the Rangers a lot. Manager Ron Washington gave Feliz the closer’s job and told him it was his to keep. He started the season blowing by pitchers and looking confident in that he could do such, and once he became the closer he just kept doing it. Sure there were snags along the way and games that were rough for him. But he only got better as the season went on.
The coaching staff helped him develop his changeup and slider as the season went along and as the pitches got better so did Feliz. He was more equipped to come into games on back-to-back nights and not have to throw his heat 90% of the time. And with a fastball that can hit triple digits, just having something that can speeds and movement on batters can throw guys off and help keep the batters from just waiting on the heat. But even when they were just looking for it, he could still get it past them before they ever even saw it. His fun loving and easy demeanor kept him calm in big situations and the kid just looked like he was having fun the whole time.
In the end, he finishes out the year with the most saves by a rookie ever at 40 saves and a very solid 2.73 ERA. The challenge now will be for him to keep learning and developing his other pitches. But the 22 year-old has a very impressive start to his career and looks like he has the skills and poise to be something special for the Rangers for years to come.