Do you like Hector Neris? It’s a complex question.
Well, not really. You probably don’t know Hector Neris. He was born in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. His nicknames are “Happy Hector” or “Compa H.” His splitter can bend time. Bruce Bochy thinks he’s an idiot. He was a big supporter of this large Panamanian child at the Little League World Series.
Not a lot to dislike, unless you were a Phillies fan circa April-June 2018. During this time, Neris threw a little over 500 pitches, some of which landed very far away. Eleven of them, actually. In his first appearance of the season, he let this happen, and in doing so made a little Opening Day baseball history.
Down five runs to another club looking to be this year’s Cinderella, the Braves saw Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Nick Markakis power them to their largest Opening Day comeback victory in the modern era.
Neat! In his final appearance of this April to June stretch, he gave up three home runs to Washington, and the Nationals celebrated the “hellacious beating” with the joy of a team that would be trading away key pieces months later.
After a promising April, Neris logged a 6.47 ERA in May and a 9.45 ERA in June as hitters clubbed away at him with a .367 BA. Maybe it was true that all he needed was some time away from the spotlight. He wasn’t fooling hitters. He was taking the lid off a sizzling plate of meatballs, and they were devouring them. The Phillies may as well have changed his entry music from the bullpen to a dinner bell.
It was not long before the fans reached the end of their patience; and eventually, the Phillies reached the end of theirs as well. Demoted, Neris disappeared to Lehigh Valley, where he sought to rejigger himself into an effective reliever. He pitched in 19 games for the IronPigs and amassed a 1.45 ERA. He didn’t allow a run through seven starts. Something was working, and it worked for long enough that it wasn’t just the AAA hitters to blame.
It’s a long season. Remember when Neris was the scourge of the bullpen, letting the Phillies bleed wins and costing them early season ground in the NL East? Of course you do, I was just talking about it. Now he’s struck out 18 of the 28 batters he’s faced since returning to the Phillies, baptized and rejuvenated in the fires of minor league ball.
In a season of lessons, Neris’ may be the most fervent. This is a year in which the type of season we’re watching has been debated:
Is this the fourth year of a rebuild?
Is it a contention year?
Wait, the Phillies have lost eight straight series. Is it?
No, actually; not anymore to me, anyway.
The definition of “success” has come up a lot. The Phillies have not escaped frustration or blame this season, and nor should they. But this season has unarguably been a success. They’ve learned more about the assets they have; learned what they can do, what they apparently can’t do, and who is going to still be here when the dust settles. They just haven’t maintained a hold on first place as they’ve done it.
Part of the problem—just to grab one off the pile at random—is the role of the closer. It is not a role that has elicited stability in the past few years. Neris, clearly, followed the pattern of some of his other teammates in key positions and faltered big time, to the point that the team felt they needed to make an at least temporary change.
Some of the guys we’ve watched this season as it nears its conclusion just never got their bats on the ball. We’re waiting for the team to become 25 players that can all (mostly) deliver, but they’re all on individual journeys to work out the kinks. This is a season in which it feels less like a lot has gone wrong, and more like a lot of things just haven’t worked out from the start: Carlos Santana. Asdrubal Cabrera. Scott Kingery. These are players for whom expectations were laid out, but did not pay off in the way that they were expected to, never got hot, and simply took up space. Key pieces have come loose, re-tightened, and come loose again.
Hector Neris, the enemy of early 2018 Phillies victories, has undergone a journey this year that we’ve seen pitchers take before. Only instead of getting lost, he came back. In a big way.
The heater is hot. The splitter is splattering. And however he was tipping his pitches prior to being sent down has been squashed. He became unquestionably in need of a fix. He made it. He made it so well, he was named the best relief pitcher in the National League.
Neris is the embodiment of a development year—a potentially crucial piece, the closer, who loses the effectiveness of his best pitches and has to adjust, develop, and improve. It may not get any better than this for him. But on Hittin’s Season, when explaining why a struggling rookie or slumping young player should get more looks, we like to say “This is what development looks like.” That goes for this case, too. The only difference is, this isn’t the ugly part.