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2021 Player Preview: Hector Neris

Hector Neris had a 2020 season full of both career-highs and career-lows. Will any of that carry over into 2021, or was it all just the result of a small sample size?

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

714 men have pitched in relief for the Philadelphia Phillies. Of those 714, only five have accumulated more fWAR than Hector Neris (4.3). With 0.9 fWAR in 2021, Neris could overtake Gene Garber and Jonathan Paplebon, and he would then trail only Ron Reed, Tug McGraw, and Ryan Madson (all World Series champions with the Phillies). If this is Hector’s last season in red pinstripes, he will have certainly left his mark on the organization.

But is 0.9 fWAR a reasonable expectation for Hector Neris in 2021? If you look at his ERA, he was pretty bad last year. If you look at his FIP, he was stellar. And according to xFIP, he was somewhere in between. So what’s the truth? Just how good was Hector in 2020, and what can we expect going forward?

What could go right for Hector Neris in 2021?

The short answer: He allows fewer runners to reach base, and of those runners who do reach base, he allows fewer of them to score.

The long answer: Okay, yes, I know. All I did there was describe the most basic things you need to do to be a good pitcher. But I promise there’s real analysis here! Hector needs to hope that his high line drive rate, his high walk rate, and his low left-on base percentage were the result of bad luck in a small sample size, rather than a sign of his impending decline. If those numbers regress towards his career averages, he’ll allow far fewer runs this year than he did in 2020.

Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)

Last year, Hector’s LOB% was a career-worst 59.5%, which is very low (a.k.a. very bad). Most pitchers hover around the league-average LOB%, which, in 2020, was 71.8%. However, a pitcher does have some control over his LOB%, so a low LOB% doesn’t immediately signify bad luck. Dominant, strikeout pitchers tend to have a higher LOB%, while pitchers who are losing their major league stuff (or who never had it to begin with) tend to have a lower LOB%.

In Hector’s case, though, it’s hard to believe that this represents a worrisome decline. His LOB% in 2020 was so much lower than his career average (79.8%) that it definitely seems suspicious. A pitcher who only strands 59.5% of runners doesn’t even belong in the major leagues, while throughout his career, Hector has demonstrated an elite ability to strand baserunners. Since his debut season, he ranks 11th among all relievers in LOB%, and 9 of the 10 relievers ahead of him are All-Stars. That means that even if Hector is beginning to decline in this area, he would still probably post a LOB% significantly higher than league average.

If Hector had stranded runners at a league average rate in 2020, he would have allowed 4-5 fewer runs. If he’d stranded runners at his stellar career rate, he would have allowed 7-8 fewer runs. That would cut his total runs allowed in half. If Hector can return to stranding runners at his typical 80% rate, he’ll look much better in 2021 than he did in 2020.

On-Base Percentage (OBP)

In 2020, Hector Neris also allowed a career-worst on-base percentage (.359), which spawned from a career-high batting average against (.267) and a career-high walk rate (12.6%).

Batting Average Against (BAA)

Hector’s high BAA was itself the result of a career-high .381 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). BABIP for pitchers, like LOB%, tends to hover around league average. However, pitchers with high line drive rates usually have higher BABIPs. Hector Neris allowed a career-high 29% line drive rate (LD%) in 2020, which is about 30% higher than his career average. Consequently, Hector’s BABIP was also around 30% higher than his career average. If Hector Neris can reduce his LD% in 2021, he should allow far fewer hits.

Lowering his LD% might sound easier said than done, but hopefully his high LD% in 2020 was the result of bad luck in a small sample size and not a true decline in skill. Line drive rate can take 1.5 years to “stabilize,” so the 21.2 innings that Hector pitched in 2020 aren’t enough to suggest that he’ll continue to allow a higher LD% going forward. It’s something keep an eye on, but not a cause for concern yet.

The league average BABIP for relievers in 2020 was .293, and that’s also Neris’ career BABIP. If Neris had allowed a .293 BABIP in 2020, then he would have allowed about 5-6 fewer hits. That doesn’t seem like much, but it would have given him a much more impressive .204 BAA. If Neris had allowed his career-average BABIP and if he had stranded runners like he normally does, he would have allowed 8-9 fewer runs in 2020.

Walk Rate (BB%)

Walk rate isn’t as easy to write off to “bad luck” as LOB% or BABIP, because most pitchers don’t just hover around a league-average walk-rate. In fact, walk-rate is one of the clearest markers of a pitcher’s true talent level. So should we be worried about Hector’s increased BB% in 2020? It's something to keep in mind, but I wouldn’t worry too much just yet.

Hector Neris walked 13 batters in only 21.2 innings last year. That led to a 12.6% walk rate in 2020, while his career walk rate is 8.5%. That’s a scary increase, but I felt much better about it once I took a closer look at each of the walks individually.

  • 2 of the walks were intentional, which is 15% of his total walks in 2020. Over his career, only 7.5% of his walks have been intentional. In a full season, we can expect his IBB rate to go down.
  • Neris walked batters at a much lower rate (9.83%) when J.T. Realmuto was his catcher than when either Andrew Knapp or Rafael Marchan was his catcher (16.67%). This makes sense, considering Realmuto’s reputation as an excellent pitch-framer. Realmuto only caught 55% of Hector’s innings in 2020, and hopefully that percentage will be much higher in 2021.
  • The batters that Neris walked in 2020 combined for a 13.5% walk rate. Only ten qualifying players in the National League had a walk rate higher than that. In other words, Neris wasn’t just walking anyone who came to the plate. He was walking some of the best on-base guys in the league. Over a full season, this should even itself out.

According to Fangraphs, the “stabilization point” for BB rate is 170 batters faced, and Hector Neris only faced 103 batters in 2020. It’s also worth noting that the average BB% in the National League increased from 8.6% in 2019 to 9.3% in 2020 (at least partially the result of the universal DH). Therefore, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to presume Hector’s BB% will regress towards his career average this coming season.

If Neris had put up his career-average BB% and his career average BABIP and his career average LOB%, he would have allowed 9-10 fewer runs last year. That would bring his runs allowed per 9 down from 6.23 to 2.29. Clearly, he’s much more talented than his 2020 ERA suggests, and if things go right for Hector Neris he could be an elite reliever in 2021. But…

What could go wrong for Hector Neris in 2021?

The short answer: He allows a home run.

The long answer: Keeping the ball in the park has never been Hector’s strong suit. 62 relievers have thrown at least 300 innings since 2014. Of them all, Neris ranks dead last in HR/9. That statistic isn’t totally fair to Hector, since you have to be a pretty good reliever in order to pitch 300 innings, but still, it illustrates my point: Hector Neris isn’t great at preventing home runs. However, in 2020, he didn’t allow a single one.

In fact, Neris didn’t allow many extra-base hits (XBH) at all in 2020. Throughout the year, he allowed just two doubles and one triple. In 22 out of his 25 appearances, he didn’t allow a single XBH. While this is clearly the result of good luck in a small sample size, Neris does deserves some credit for this (especially considering the dreadful outfield defense behind him). His fly ball rate (FB%) in 2020 was a career-low 29%, and unlike line drive rate, which takes a long time to “stabilize,” you can get a decent sense of a pitcher’s fly ball rate within one or two months. This suggests that Hector may have made a meaningful change to his approach to reduce XBHs allowed.

However, even if Hector has found a sustainable way to reduce his FB%, he’s still going to allow more extra base hits in 2021. According to Statcast, Neris’ expected slugging percentage (SLG) in 2020 was .355. That number is lower than his career average (which reflects the improvements Hector made) but still much higher than the .311 SLG that he actually allowed. Hector Neris will certainly allow more doubles, triples, and home-runs in 2021, and that could be a problem for a pitcher who already had a 4.57 ERA in 2020. His SLG allowed will increase, and if he can’t significantly decrease his BB% and BAA, Hector Neris could be in real trouble.

So what can we reasonably expect from Hector Neris in 2021?

The short answer: More of the same.

The long answer: I’ve outlined an optimistic scenario, in which I only addressed the positive ways that Hector’s numbers should regress, and a pessimistic scenario, in which I only addressed the negative ways his numbers should regress. The most likely outcome, however, is somewhere in the middle.

Hector’s 4.10 xFIP in 2020 is a decent predictor of his 2021 performance, since it removes actual runs and home runs from the equation. However, I’d like to tweak it so as to also remove Hector’s actual BB% from the calculation. If Neris were to have walked batters at his career average rate in 2020, his xFIP would have been 3.51. That’s very similar to his career line (3.38 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 3.58 xFIP). If he can pitch at that level for 60+ innings, Hector Neris will get the fWAR he needs to reach fourth place on the Phillies leaderboards. A 3.50 FIP isn’t ideal for a closer on a team with playoff aspirations (and it seems like Hector Neris will still be sharing closing duties this season), but it’s still very solid production.