Following a few years of an unstable closing situation at the back-end of their bullpen, the Texas Rangers finally found a rock to lean on in flame-throwing rookie, Neftali Feliz.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Rangers fought their way to the best finish in the franchise's 50-year history, winning the 2010 American League pennant.
Providing the foundation upon which the team built their success, the 22-year-old right-hander rode his dominant stuff to a shut-down season in the closer role, pitching himself into baseball's record books along the way and winning the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year Award. I
t was the first time a Ranger had taken home the coveted honor since Mike Hargrove was named the league's top rookie in 1974.
Closing games all year for Texas after incumbent Frank Francisco struggled in early April, Feliz broke the previous rookie saves record of 37 that Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Seattle Mariners established in 2000. Sasaki's record setting performance was enough to win the Rookie of the Year Award that season as well. Feliz became the second consecutive reliever to win the award, following Oakland's Andrew Bailey last year.
In a relatively shallow 2010 AL rookie class, Feliz's dominance easily outclassed his competition for baseball's top rookie honor. Texas' pitching phenom was listed first on 20 of 28 ballots to win the voting decisively. Detroit's Austin Jackson finished second to Feliz in the hotly contested balloting. Minnesota's third baseman Danny Valencia rounded-out the top three.
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The young Texas closer was not only the top rookie in the American League, but was among the top closers in all of baseball during 2010. His 93 percent success rate in save opportunities trailed only Heath Bell, Rafael Soriano and Joakim Soria in all of Major League Baseball amongst closers with at least 30 saves.
Over 69.1 innings, Feliz struck out 71, while only allowing 43 hits and 18 walks for a 0.88 WHIP. His 59 games finished led the American League, and his 2.73 ERA, .176 opponents' batting average and .246 opponents' on-base percentage put him in elite company amongst closers.
Overall, not only was he the league's top rookie, but the argument could be reasonably be made that he was one of the two best closers in the AL this season.
His performance after the All-Star break may have cemented the award for him in the minds of voters.
While Austin Jackson regressed significantly after his scintillating start, Neftali Feliz only got better down the stretch. In the second half of the season, Feliz made 31 appearances, earning 17 saves with a 1.42 ERA and a minuscule 0.663 WHIP, improving upon his 3.83 ERA and 1.062 WHIP from the first half.
Feliz provided a dominant force at the end of the bullpen for his Rangers team as they battled toward the postseason.
Though it doesn't figure into the voting for the Rookie of the Year, Feliz continued his dominance in October as well. He only earned one save, but in 7.1 innings, he sported a 1.23 ERA, while striking out 11. The Rangers ultimately fell to the Giants in five games to lose the World Series, but Feliz made his presence felt whenever he took the mound.
It remains to be seen how Feliz will be deployed by the Rangers in the future. Before 2009, he had been primarily a starter, and Texas has envisioned the burgeoning, young fire-baller as an ace to lead their starting rotation for years to come.
However, that plan has been sidetracked somewhat, as he has proved to be an invaluable presence at the back end of their bullpen. The Rangers may be inclined to try to get more value from the youngster by transitioning him into a front-line starting pitcher, similar to C.J. Wilson's evolution as a hurler.
For now, however, in Neftali Feliz, the Texas Rangers have a shut-down closer in their relief corps, a young hurler whose rookie campaign culminated in a World Series appearance and the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year award.
Texas may be reluctant to tinker with such a successful formula, in hopes that they might be able to duplicate 2010's success and create a powerhouse in Arlington for the next several years.