Silent assassin: Feliz having breakout season
Health key to third baseman's impressive offensive numbers
PHILADELPHIA -- Never mind that he delivered the World Series-winning hit last year, or that he's been in the Majors longer than most of his Phillies teammates.
Pedro Feliz was never the loquacious type.
So it's fitting that as he is putting together one of the finest seasons of his career, he is doing it, well, quietly.
A career .255 hitter, Feliz is batting .294, fourth on the Phillies. He was at .318 before a recent cold stretch that plagued the entire team, but still, his average ranks fourth in the National League among seventh-place hitters and fifth among regular NL third basemen, ahead of Ryan Zimmerman.
Feliz, notorious for his lack of plate discipline, has more walks than Boston's Mike Lowell and more RBIs than Atlanta's Chipper Jones.
And as he showed with his seventh-inning single in Game 5 of the World Series, Feliz has a dramatic flair. Small sample size notwithstanding, he is hitting .330 with men on base, .339 with runners in scoring position and .378 in the seventh through ninth innings.
"I put a lot of work on it," Feliz said. "Trying to find my pitch to swing [at], trying to use the whole field."
Of his 18 Citizens Bank Park singles to reach the outfield grass, for instance, only five landed in left field. Ditto for his 11 home extra-base hits, five of which have gone to center or right.
Even during his days in San Francisco -- where he spent the first eight seasons of his career -- Feliz would pay lip service to going the other way. Usually, though, he would revert back to his pull-happy form.
This seems to be different. After all, 40 percent of this season, his second in Philadelphia, has come and gone, and Feliz is sitting 40 points better than his career average and nearly 50 points above his 2008 mark.
But last year, he was bothered by a bulging disk in his back. He spent some time on the disabled list, but mostly tried to play through it, to the detriment of his numbers. He had surgery in the offseason. Now he is completely pain-free.
That -- more than the hours he has spent in the video room and the cage -- may explain everything.
"He's healthy," said Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson, asked about Feliz's batting average spike. "I'm serious. He's healthy and he's seeing the ball and he's attacking it."Feliz admitted it could be a factor, even if not the only one.
"It might," he said. "It's different when you go in there without a little space in your mind thinking about pain. So you should be more comfortable."
Other things may have made him more comfortable as well. Earlier this season, manager Charlie Manuel suggested that Feliz's Fall Classic hit may have unburdened him. He would no longer have to try to prove to his teammates that he belonged.
"I know I did [belong]," he said. "I don't think about it more often because I got a hit. I just come here the same way, trying to look forward to getting another big hit."
Yet, he may be more comfortable in other ways. The Giants had signed him as an amateur free agent in 1994, and he stayed within their organization for 14 years. Then he was uprooted, bound for a city 3,000 miles away. He signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract, with a club option for year three. His wife and three daughters stayed home, unable to see dad for months at a time.
"Maybe there was a comfort level there that now he's starting to establish here," said Phillies reliever Tyler Walker, who played with Feliz in San Francisco from 2004-07. "People are starting to know who he is. That's huge for a player, so people understand you and let you do your thing."
One part of that thing is Gold Glove-caliber defense, which never dissipated even during his rocky 2008. The Dominican-born Feliz grew up playing shortstop and second base and converted to a third baseman in the Giants' farm system because of an organizational shortage. Once he reached the bigs, San Francisco appreciated his versatility, deploying him semi-regularly at short, third, first and left field. He even caught once in an extra-inning game, filling in admirably.
The consummate team player -- "I wouldn't say no," he said -- Feliz bounced around and smiled, like always. But he longed to play one position regularly. Especially the one he manned for seven-plus years in the Minors.
"Always in the back of my mind, I know I'm a third baseman," he said.
His moment came in 2006, when he started 154 games at third. And given the chance, he decided to become one of the best at his position. Upon signing with the Phillies, he received rave reviews from shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.
"It's unbelievable," Walker said. "He's saved my bacon many, many a time."Said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.: "Really, he's as good a defender as there is in the National League. ... There's runs in that glove."
Feliz is the eighth regular Phillies third baseman since Schmidt retired. None had Schmidt's offensive pop, of course, but Feliz was expected to hit 25 homers annually.
Despite his strong start to 2009, his power is lacking.
After all, he is no stranger to being overlooked. With the Giants, he played a very distant second fiddle to Barry Bonds. The rest of the lineup was relatively weak, so opposing teams could pitch around Feliz. Walker thinks this contributed to Feliz's free-swinging "bad habits." But big swings produced big results. He could always crush a fastball. From 2003-07, Feliz led the Giants in RBIs and was second only to Bonds in home runs.
Scouts and executives had predicted that the move from cavernous AT&T Park to hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park would bolster his power numbers. This year, he has just three homers, which puts him on pace for seven -- his lowest total as an everyday player. (Although Thompson projected that Feliz will finish with closer to 20.)
He never tries to hit home runs anyway. He also doesn't care.
"If going to hit .300 will help the team to get more wins, I'd rather go that way than go 20 home runs and don't do anything for the team," he said.
The Phillies don't care, either.
"Any time he's producing runs for us, for me it doesn't really matter whether it's by base hit or by home run," Amaro said. "And he's been probably one of our best, most clutch performers as far as driving in runs at certain spots during the course of the game."
Meanwhile, Amaro has a decision to make. The club has a $5 million option, with a $500,000 buyout, on Feliz for 2010. The Phillies won't reach a verdict until near or after the conclusion of the season. Amaro said there will be three primary considerations: the club's resource-allocation desires; a year-end assessment of Feliz's production, and whether he is replaceable; and whether he remains healthy.
The first-year GM declined to qualify or quantify the performance of Feliz, whom he called a "great guy in the clubhouse" and "quality human being."
"But he has helped us win games, and as long as he continues to help us win games, then he's absolutely been worth the investment for us," Amaro said. "If he gets through this year healthy and we feel like he's going to be a productive player for us, then clearly he's done nothing at this point to persuade us not to pick up his option."
The soft-spoken Feliz -- whose humor can nevertheless can lighten the clubhouse mood, according to Walker -- would like to return.
"I'm happy here. I would love to [stay]," he said. "I'm always going to see the happy way."
Appropriate enough for the only Major Leaguer in history named "Feliz."
David Gurian-Peck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.