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Ryan Feltner’s remarkable comeback showcased his huge potential

What could’ve been a breakout season was interrupted by a scary line drive to the head, but Feltner made a remarkable recovery and looked excellent in his return.

Welcome to the 2023 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2023. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

★ ★ ★

No. 21, Ryan Feltner: 0.2 rWAR

Sometimes, just making it back to where you used to be is a tremendous accomplishment.

This is a big part of the story of Ryan Feltner’s 2023. After undergoing significant changes as a pitcher throughout his rookie season, Feltner entered 2023 with a very real chance to break out and become a pillar of the Rockies’ rotation moving forward. The changes from previous years were noticeable. His velocity was up, his changeup was nastier than ever, and he had a new hard slider he’d soon put to use against MLB hitters.

Despite some issues with walks and a few innings getting away from him, Feltner was holding his own in his first real taste of consistent starts at the big league level as the new version of himself. His pairing of two good fastballs, an exceptional changeup and that hard slider made him extremely difficult to barrel up—Feltner allowed only two homers in his first 33 13 innings of the season and got tons of soft contact across the board. He even had a genuinely dominant run of three starts in late April in which he allowed just two earned runs across 17 frames. All in all, he looked primed to establish himself as a big-league starter for years to come.

Until May 13th.

We’ve all seen the video more than a few times, and I won’t put it here again because quite frankly, it makes me wince every single time I think about it. In the second inning of his eighth start of the season, Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos hit a hard line drive that hit Feltner square in the head. He was immediately removed from the game, and was soon diagnosed with a skull fracture on top of a concussion. It was universally considered that his season was over, and we all wondered about the potential long-term effects of an injury of that caliber.

Remarkably, however, Feltner’s season was not over. After months of recovery and a few minor league rehab outings, the 26-year-old got back on a big league mound for the first time in over four months on September 19th, facing the star-studded Padres lineup in San Diego. Just getting to that point was impressive. Feltner had headaches and general wooziness at times in the first few weeks following his injury, and the ramp-up process had to be slow and steady. He would clearly be forgiven if it turned out he was a bit rusty against the Padres.

But he wasn’t. Feltner not only pitched five dominant scoreless innings, he did so while showcasing the most dynamic stuff of his career, and the best raw stuff I’ve seen from any Rockies starter since Germán Márquez was at his best a few years ago. His fastball averaged 96 mph, reached as high as 98.5, and bullied Padres hitters at the top of the zone. Even more impressive to me was the appearance of a totally new curveball, an 81-82 mph bender with two-plane break that rates as plus in my evaluation. The fact that Feltner clearly used the time he needed to rehab not just to get back to where he was, but to improve, tells you a lot about his work ethic and desire to be as good as he can be.

Because his 2023 was cut short, 2024 will be the first real extended run he’ll get as a starter, and I think he’s very capable of breaking out as the Rockies’ best pitcher. I’ve written about Feltner a few times before, and those of you who frequent the site will know he’s a favorite of mine. The righty has many excellent tools: more than one good fastball (a four-seam and a sinker, in his case), good velocity, an outlier-ish release point, breaking ball feel and a disgusting changeup.

His delivery creates a lower release point than usual for a starter, creating plus angle on his fastball up in the zone. He pairs that with a good sinker he can use against right-handers, and his trusted slider he can manipulate into a few different shapes—hard cutters for lefties, bigger ones to righties. His changeup is a true equalizer, a plus pitch with outlier movement that gives lefties fits, and that new curveball he flashed after coming back from injury gives him an offering he can terrorize righties with. It’s truly a complete pitch mix.

The obstacles in front of him are both fairly unique and very regular. Getting back on the mound after such a significant injury was a big deal, and being able to check that off his list prior to the offseason was likely very important to him. Because of that injury, he pitched fewer than 50 MLB innings this season, so it’s likely that the Rockies are somewhat cautious with his workload in 2024. Really, he just needs to be on the mound to show what he can do. Because Ryan Feltner can do a lot of great things. And becoming an excellent starting pitcher in the big leagues is among them.

★ ★ ★

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