On Independence Day, the Phillies faced the San Diego Padres. It was the top of the ninth, the Padres coming up, already the owners of a 5-1 lead and the Phillies hoping to just stay within shouting distance to make a game of it before the day was done. Newly deposed closer Hector Neris was sent in to try and have a confidence building outing, stress free since it wasn’t a save situation. It was about a low leverage as one could get at 0.05 aLI (average leverage index).
Neris proceeded to allow six runs to run the score to 11-1, eventually needing Andrew Knapp of all people to help get him out of there and mercifully end the game. Sure he was affected by a monsoon that the umpires surprisingly made the teams play through, but still, his line of 2⁄3 of an inning, four hits, six runs allowed was simply unacceptable.
Neris had already been removed as the team’s closer, but this performance sealed the deal. Nothing about his performance warranted his entering any kind of pressure situation, meaning Neris would be banished to mop up duties until he had his head on straight.
Well dear reader, since that date, Hector Neris has been quite good. His line in games since then goes as follows:
14 G, 16 2⁄3 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 5 BB, 19 K, 1.62 ERA, .464 OPS against
Those are very good numbers. He’s been effective in his role, which seems to have become more of a mid-leverage reliever than a high stakes closer. He can still get the job done as evidenced by the save he earned against Miami, but even with Ranger Suarez headed back to the rotation, the team made sure they acquired Ian Kennedy to cover the closer’s job instead of handing it back to Hector. No matter. Joe Girardi has entrusted Neris with getting some of the higher leverage innings available lately, the most recent example coming when Ranger Suarez was unable to get out of the third inning on Saturday. According to Baseball Reference, J.D. Hammer actually had the highest leverage appearance of the four non-closers that day at 1.28 aLI, but Neris was also called upon to close the door that day. Since being removed from the closer’s role, Neris begin his exile with a couple of low leverage spots, but since then he has seen his role expand into more and more pressure spots and he has responded.
So what has changed, if anything? Well, there are a couple of things that have been different for Neris since that day. First off is his pitch usage. You can see from this rolling average that we can see a drop in splitter usage and a rise in his fastball usage.
For reference, July 4 was his 34th game of the year.
Prior to that date, it seems the team had convinced him to start using the straight stuff more often and to kind of curb how much he was throwing his splitter. The biggest change has come with the increased usage of a sinker. While Neris has thrown it in the past, he had all but abandoned it by 2018. He has had a gradual increase in using the pitch, which has led to his being able to throw two different kinds of fastballs this season. Thanks to this, he has subsequently seen drops in two major bugaboos for a reliever: groundball rate and barrel percentage.
As Neris has increased his throwing of the sinker, he has seen the barrel rate hitters are clipping him at fall as well, from 12.7% in 2018 to 7.1% in 2019, followed by a near full percentage point drop in each of the next two seasons. As any person who has seen Neris pitch in high leverage situations can attest to, Neris seemed to get barreled up more and more often prior to 2021. Is that more subjective? Of course, but the data does show that he’s been dropping that rate over the years.
The other thing he’s been improving at this year is getting hitters to hit groundballs. In 2021, he has gotten outs by inducing wormburners at a 50% clip, by far the best number of his career.
During this recent run of his, his groundball rate has remained much the same, with a slight increase in flyball rate, but the important thing to take away from this graph is the fact that he is keeping the line drive rate, the one that gets hits most often, almost consistently low.
While we may not see him regain full closer’s status, that may not be the worst thing in the world for him. Every team needs a reliever that can get important outs in the middle innings. With the Phillies, that’s been doubly true since a few of their starters have been able to even see the middle innings, let alone pitch them. Kennedy has clearly been entrusted with getting those all-important final three outs, but if Neris can continue to show up and pitch well in those middle innings, in the sixth and seventh innings, that’s almost as valuable to the team right now. Once the season is done, it could also determine whether the team retains his services for another season as well.
For now, let’s continue to enjoy the good version of Hector Neris. You never know when it’ll disappear.