Flash back to April 29.
It was a wonderful time to be alive as a Phillies fan. The team was winning! They headed on a road trip against two of the National League’s powerhouses, looking to establish themselves as the plucky underdog, capable of not only staying with the league’s best, but beating them as well. They had just lost the first game against the Los Angeles Dodgers the night before, but at one point held a lead! They could do this. They were a team in ascension.
Yet issues were beginning to bubble underneath this smile-inducing surface of respectability. Hector Neris, the team’s best reliever, didn’t look right. Sure, his ERA entering that date stood at a shiny 2.19, but he had given up runs in three of his last four appearances. For a team that was struggling to identify someone who was capable of shutting the door in the ninth innings, this was concerning.
Nevertheless, as the game that late Saturday night went to the ninth inning, Neris was summoned from the bullpen to preserve a three run lead, the minimum requirement to accrue that arbitration-loving stat, the save. We all know what happened next:
It was probably the most disappointing loss this season, and what’s worse, it was the beginning of the 4-19 slide the Phillies are currently on now.
After the game, Neris’ ERA stood at an unsightly 4.97 and people were whispering that something was amiss. The team had been asking Neris to throw his dominant pitch, the splitter, more often than he was at the time. They had a point. Up until that date, during 2017, Neris’ use of his splitter was less than his use of his fastball (45% v. 50%), something that had never happened during the previous year. Perhaps he had become enamored with the fact that his fastball had ticked up as the 2016 season wore on and he wanted to simply blow people away with his newfound velocity. The team’s think tank saw his usage of the heat and politely asked him to pump the brakes and go back to the pitch that made him such an effective reliever in the first place.
Whatever it is, something has clicked with Neris, as he has gone back to being the top flight reliever we’ve all come to love. Check out this difference in his work during April and May:
Neris in April and May
Yes, yes, yes, small sample sizes, blah blah blah. That is true and must be taken into account. I’d argue: isn’t a reliever’s entire resume a small sample size?
Anyway, there is a lot of change from month to month, and I have no doubt that a lot of it has to do with that one horrendous outing against Los Angeles. This is true. His number in April minus that outing are (if you use the chart as a slash guide): 12.1/9/2.19/.556/1/43%. There are still some subtle differences here.
For one, Neris’ groundball rate has seen a huge uptick. It makes sense that that uptick directly correlates to the fact he is throwing the splitter nearly 50% of time, while his fastball usage has dropped under 40%. It’s a pitch that lends itself to being hammered into the ground repeatedly. Splitters are also difficult to hit for home runs and Neris is doing a better job at placing his splitters in the zone (here is April, and here is May. The difference: bigly).
To me, though, the biggest difference I could find is in the strikes looking and strikes swung at. Check out this little nugget:
April - Strikes looking: 9%, strikes swinging: 15%
May - Strikes looking: 14%, strikes swinging: 17%
Put simply: he’s getting more strikes. You can see it there. I don’t need to tell you, the reader, that more strikes on a hitter are good because it allows a pitcher such as Neris, who possesses such a lethal two strike pitch, to utilize said pitch for strike outs. In Tuesday’s game against the Rockies, Neris was able to take this approach into practice, striking out the side, two coming on splitters to record the out.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I also finding it ironic that I am writing today about the player paid to close out victories for the team when they are seemingly unable to hand him a lead to finish off. But on this day where we are searching for something, anything to be positive about, here is your shred of silver lining. The team’s best reliever is back and better than ever.