It has been a bizarre year for Hector Neris. He earned his demotion to triple A, no doubt. But he earned it in a very strange way. In his 30 innings of work over the first few months of the season, the former closer surrendered 11 home runs. That’s an average of 3.3 every nine innings, a number that only five players in major league history have ever equaled over the course of a whole season (minimum 30 innings pitched). Before his demotion, 18 of the 22 runs that scored while he was on the mound were driven in by a home run.
But none of that is the strange part. No, that part comes when you try to identify what, exactly, led to those home runs. His velocity was right where it had been over his previous three seasons, when his 2.99 ERA ranked 36th out of 93 major league relievers with at least 150 innings. True, he was homer-prone even during that stretch, allowing an average of 1.2 per nine innings, one of the worst marks among those 93 relievers. But there isn’t much else that would point to a 200 percent spike like the one he has seen this year.
Command? His strike rate was 64.4 percent, nearly identical to the one he posted from 2015-17. He was walking batters at the same rate as last season and at a better rate than his dominant 2016 campaign. Opponents were making less contact than they ever had against the righty: 61.3 percent of swings, compared with a career mark of 66.2 percent. In fact, that contact rate currently ranks as the third-lowest among National League pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. To put that in perspective, none of the other pitchers who rank in the top 15 in contact rate has an ERA above 3.58. Neris’ was 6.90 when he departed for triple A.
Drill even deeper into the numbers and you are still left searching. His once-vaunted splitter hadn’t been nearly as effective as in previous seasons, but he was throwing it for strikes at roughly the same rate as he always had. His overall groundball rate was the lowest of his career, but not to an extreme that should have signaled this level of trouble. The only glaring difference was that nearly one in four of those fly balls left the park: 22.4 percent of them, to be exact, the highest rate of any major league pitcher with at least 15 innings of work.
None of this eliminates the possibility that Neris was simply the victim of poor location inside the strike zone. But it also lends some credence to the theory that the one time bullpen pillar was tipping off his pitches.
Whatever the reason for his struggles, a return of the Neris of old would be a huge boon for the Phillies’ bullpen during this stretch run. In 19 appearances at Lehigh Valley, he faced 74 batters and did not allow a home run, posted a 1.45 ERA and allowed just 17 baserunners in 18 2/3 innings of work.
“We will use him in important situations going forward,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “The reports were outstanding. The swing-and-misses have been significant. The walk rates have been low. He’s been attacking with his fastball more in the zone. The numbers say he’s ready to step into big situations for us again.”
It remains to be seen how much opportunity Neris will get before the Phillies are confronted with a more acute need for the roster spot he now occupies. The club is currently carrying just four starting pitchers and will need to make a roster move to accommodate one of the two starters who will be on the mound in Thursday’s doubleheader against the Mets. Another candidate for demotion is lefty Austin Davis, who has allowed 12 of the last 34 batters he has faced to reach base with eight runs allowed over his last 7 2/3 innings.
Neris, for one, is determined to ignore any such thoughts. During his time in triple A, he sought the advice of two influential figures in his life: famed Dominican Republic trainer Chiqui Mejia and former big-league reliever Joel Peralta. Throughout their phone conversations, both men counseled Neris on the mental side of pitching.
“I was working on a lot of stuff, but most important was, don’t think too much. Don’t think too much in the moment,” he said. “Who’s the hitter, what’s the sign, and throw the pitch you want to throw.”
In a season whose plot continues to thicken, Neris’ performance will be an intriguing sidebar to follow. At 29 years old, he remains under club control through at least the 2021 season. To make it that long, he’ll need to find a way to keep more balls in the yard. A half-season anomaly, or a career-threatening problem? What comes next is the process of finding out.
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