Your 2006 Giants: Feliz a Hitting Volcano Waiting to Erupt
Feliz's Bad Past
On the surface, in spite of the fact that fans felt that Feliz would be an improvement over Alfonzo, fans are still scratching their head and wondering why the Giants don't use their "Maddux" money to get a better 3B. His career, career best, and 2005 season OBP would rank last among 3B in 2005. He was likewise last for 6th place hitters, which is where he is slated to bat in 2006. His OBP was abyssmal.
However, it was much better for his slugging, which is where most of the run value is to be gained from a 6th place hitter - most NL teams don't rely on their 7th, 8th, and 9th place hitter to drive in the 6th place hitter. His career and 2005 season SLG would have ranked 8th or 9th, respectively, and his career best would have ranked 5th, which would have been pretty good out of 16 teams.
But the OBP dragged down his OPS. His OPS would be 11th or 12th, 9th for his career best. So he looks to be a weak link in the Giants lineup, which was my thoughts going into this post.
Improved Hitting Hidden Under the Surface of Mediocre Results
However, looking at his FanGraph stats page, a couple of interesting developments were revealed. First, while he is walk challenged, he's not as bad as Giants fans have been depicting him, at least not in 2005. He made a big leap in 2005, as his overall BB% rose to a career best 6.3%, which is above his poor rates of his career and is approaching league average, which is around 8%. In fact, looking at his in-season average, he spent a good portion of the year in the middle of the pack, with some peaks into the good range. It's clear that he took some time working on improving his walk rate, I don't think you can fluke into getting 50% more walks during a full season without consciously working on it.
Meanwhile, he kept his strikeouts in the good half of the middle again in 2005 vs. 2004, which resulted in an improvement in his batting eye - BB/SO ratio - again, from 0.19 in 2003, to 0.27 in 2004, to 0.37 in 2005. Still, 0.50 (or 50%) is the minimum for any major leaguer who expect to hit adequately, but at least he's been making progress each year and improving by leaps and bounds - at the rate he has been improving he should be approaching 0.50 in 2006. And there were extended periods in 2005 where his batting eye was good, the first time in his career that he did this. And it is clearly trending higher on an overall basis from season to season the past three seasons. In addition, he spent much of the time from around August 2004 to around August 2005 with his SO% in the good range (top 20%) of hitters, before possibly tiring in his first full season of play or having his play in LF affect his hitting.
Looking at his left/right splits, he has shown improving mastery over LHP each year while continuing to have average performance against RHP. His BB% vs. LHP was actually in the Good range for much of the season in 2005 and never once strayed into the Poor range. In fact, his key hitting indicators - BB%, BB/SO, and contact rate (AB-BB/AB) - vs. LHP were all in the good range, even though his overall hitting performance didn't show it. In addition, while his hitting appears to be down overall in 2005, his hitting was much more consistent in 2005, in terms of up and down variance, than it was in previous years.
While his SLG went way down the past two years, it was mainly a result of his HR/FB dropping the past two years. But it only marked what appears to be a regression to the mean as he is now down to 10.8% in 2005, which is not far off from the standard 10% HR/FB mean that pitchers are suppose to regress to, so hopefully he won't fall any further, though I don't recall any study that says that batters adhere to this rule of thumb as well.
Another positive sign for his power hitting is that his Fly Ball percentage has been going up each year the past three seasons and his GB/FB (ground ball/fly ball) ratio took a big drop in 2005, showing a greater propensity for fly balls. This is usually a sign of coming power development as HR hitting is tied to the number of fly balls you hit. And the reason his batting average took a hit in 2005 was because his line drive percentage has been going down and line drives are more likely to become hits than ground balls or fly balls.
Home and away, his hit rates were mainly in the mid-range, rarely in the poor range, and sometimes in the good range over the past two seasons. And his key hitting indicators were all trending upward as well. So these also suggest that Feliz has been improving each year as well, whether at home or on the road, echoing the improvement shown vs. LHP I noted above.
I didn't realize until I looked in-depth at Feliz's numbers just how poorly he hit in 2005 overall. And yet, when you dig deeper into his numbers, he has never had a better year in terms of key hitting indicators. So what's real, the worse hitting in 2005 or the better hitting indicators?
I'm just starting to understand all this but the basic gist of how I understand this stuff is that even hitters with good key hitting indicators will have a widely varying performance in any given year, but in general overall they will hit better than hitters with poor hitting indicators. Not to say that Feliz is at the point where he has good hitting indicators, but he looks like he is ready to become a much stronger hitter vs. LHP whereas before he was relatively even, versus left or right. In addition, he kept his hitting on a relative even keel for much of 2005 whereas he would turn absolute hot, then cold, in previous seasons.
So what all this means is that I expect Feliz to have a breakout type of season in 2006, where he will open up some eyes. The factors above certainly indicates this to a great extent, mainly in his hitting vs. LHP, but with average hitting vs. RHP, as he has been able to do previously in his career, that would translate into good hitting overall if you can dominate vs. LHP. In addition, he will get to play the full season at 3B, where he is most comfortable, whereas in 2005 he spent a lot of it in LF, where his defensive struggles may have carried forward and affected his subsequent at-bats. Furthermore, what could be a huge factor is that he becomes a free agent after the season for the first time, so he should be working his butt off to earn his next contract, his first free agent contract.
Overall, given the improving hitting indicators, his batting average may go up but shouldn't get worse, and with his improvement in taking walks, his OBP should start approaching league average, which is only around .320, whereas before he was at or under .300, which is bad, very bad. An improved batting average would help improve his SLG and the increasing trend towards fly balls should lead to at worse the same 20-25 homerun range he has been the past two years and perhaps if he can get his HR/FB up again as it was in seasons past, he could go even higher. So, I know this is hard to believe - and I'm hesitant to go on a limb like this given his poor history - but the evidence above suggests that Feliz has generally been improving on his hitting each year he got more playing time and that he is on the brink of becoming a very good hitter vs. LHP, and thus a good hitter overall, in 2006.