Neftali Feliz Discusses Difficult Road Back from Tommy John Surgery

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Neftali Feliz Discusses Difficult Road Back from Tommy John Surgery
Tony Gutierrez/AP Images

These days, it seems, if you're a major league pitcher who hasn't had his ulnar collateral ligament replaced, that just means you haven't had Tommy John surgery—yet. Neftali Feliz, the Texas Rangers' reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever-again, knows a little something about the procedure as well as the lengthy and daunting recovery process.

While Feliz is just about to embark upon his first full season post-surgery, a number of other notable pitchers in the past several days have surrendered to the proposition that they'll be going under the knife to repair their UCLs and taking a prolonged time away from the game. All in the hopes that, like Feliz, they can get back to where they were just before they found out what they were in for.

Such is the future facing hurlers like Patrick Corbin, Kris Medlen and Jarrod Parker. The latter two, by the way, are having their second such surgeries, making them a rare breed .

Meanwhile, Feliz has been there, done that. Actually, more like been there, still doing that.

Long before Feliz, now 25, had the procedure back on Aug. 1, 2012, he was winning the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year award and racking up 72 saves in his two full seasons as closer. He helped the Rangers reach the postseason three straight times, including two consecutive trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.

And yet, now nearly 20 months removed from his incision decision, Feliz is back—but not yet all the way.

"The mental hurdles far exceed the physical ones," Feliz said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "I knew my doctor and training staff know their stuff and that they would prepare me to come back stronger than before the surgery."

That's the plan, but that's also been the question surrounding Feliz this month. His statistics are solid (7 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 4:1 K:BB through Tuesday), but the numbers many in the Rangers organization are keeping a close eye on are getting most of the attention—specifically, those two digits preceding "mph" on radar guns across Arizona. That's not unexpected, considering what Feliz has been working his way back from.

"People who have Tommy John surgery may think they want to hurry up and rush [to make it back]," Feliz said. "But you need to know that it is a long process."

Feliz didn't get back on a big league mound until last Sept. 1, a full 13 months after going under the knife.

Neftali Feliz's Fastball Velocity By Year
SEASON MPH
2009 95.6
2010 96.3
2011 96.3
2012 94.6*
2013 93.7
*Converted to starting pitcher prior to surgery

PITCHf/x via FanGraphs

For what it's worth, Feliz's fastball velocity reportedly was back in the mid-to-high 90s during workouts over the winter, per Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas. That lines up with his pre-surgery levels when his heater averaged 96 mph from 2009 through 2011, his first three seasons, according to the PITCHf/x data available on FanGraphs.

More recently, though, T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com pointed out that Feliz's velocity this spring has been closer to 92-93 mph, with the occasional 94 mixed in.

Feliz's response, via Sullivan:

I'm not focused on the velocity. I'm working on what I need to be working on. I'm focusing more on keeping the ball down and using my other pitches. I think the velocity will come soon. I feel good throwing 93-94. I know more is coming soon and be there consistently. It's coming.

Rangers manager Ron Washington followed that up with his take:

I see that [Feliz] is repeating his delivery, and he is throwing the ball down in the zone. He's using all his pitches. At some point, he'll be able to cut loose and just let it all hang out. I don't know when that will be, but hopefully it will be soon.

To his credit, Feliz told Bleacher Report his battle to make it back afforded him the opportunity to work on his other offerings, primarily his slider and changeup. He said he was able to focus on those pitches while playing in the Dominican Winter League for the first time this offseason.

"I learned to trust in my secondary pitches more," Feliz said. "I gained the confidence to know I can use them any time during a game."

If there's a silver lining to Feliz's surgery and grueling recovery it's this: Should his once-monstrous fastball not come all the way back, at least he'll have other, more advanced weapons at his disposal as he attempts to regain the ninth inning for Texas.

Feliz's main competition for the closer role is fellow right-hander Joakim Soria, the former Kansas City Royals stopper who had the same surgery (for a second time) just four months earlier, on April 3, 2012.

These two former All-Stars who are now competing directly against each other for the same role spent a lot of time together, encouraging each other and working through their daily strength-building exercises during the rehab process.

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For Feliz and Soria, in the immediate aftermath of their surgeries, it wasn't about competition but camaraderie. After all, Feliz said, "the hardest parts [of his experience] were not knowing the future and not being with my teammates."

Soria helped Feliz, but he wasn't the only one.

"I talked with Soria and Joe Nathan," Feliz says of the pitcher who not only lost all of the 2010 season to TJ surgery, but also replaced him as Rangers closer and totaled 80 saves over the past two years before signing on with the Detroit Tigers this winter. "They said to be patient, never be scared and work hard."

Feliz, it turns out, had to be a little more patient than most pitchers who endure UCL replacement surgery.

"Normally, it takes five months to throw afterward," Feliz says, "but I didn't throw until six months later, around Christmas in 2012. Then it took another two months after that before I wasn't thinking or worrying about my arm anymore."

The road to recovery from Tommy John surgery is a long one, and it takes some pitchers longer than others. With March 31—the start of the Rangers' regular season—bearing down, Feliz doesn't have to wait, doesn't have to be patient much longer. He just has to be ready.

"I expect to keep working hard, stay healthy and help the team win the World Series," he said.

 

Very special thanks to Greg Maroni and California Sports Management Inc. for setting up the interview with their client, Neftali Feliz.

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