Between injuries, poor performance and new faces, the Phillies bullpen has been anything but consistent in 2019. Hector Neris has been the exception.
Making 30 appearances thus far, the 30-year-old is proving that he is more than capable of handling the role as the team’s closer—whether or not Gabe Kapler gives him the title or not.
Prior to his first blown save of the season this past Friday versus the Atlanta Braves, Neris was one of only three pitchers in all of baseball to record a minimum of 14 saves and maintain a perfect save percentage. He currently ranks 22nd among National League relievers in ERA (2.67), and is 46-for-50 when given the opportunity to record a save since June 28, 2017.
Just over a year ago, he was being demoted for the second time.
Although Neris’ 2018 numbers were undeniably ugly at the surface, many of his peripherals hinted at what truly ailed him: a high batting average on balls in play (.354) plus a career-high hard hit percentage (36.4%) equaling a lot of home runs (2.08 HR/9)—most of which only remained until that second demotion. From August 15 through the final stretch he posted a 2.04 ERA with 35 strikeouts and just five walks in 17.2 innings.
Outside of getting a foothold in 2015 and a rough couple months in 2018, Neris has proven to be one of the most dominant and reliable arms in the division for nearly half a decade. Despite rough patches, he still boasts a career 3.31 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 11.38 K/9 and 3.02 BB/9.
Outside of being selective, Neris can largely attribute his success to two things: poise in the clutch and his straight-up nasty splitter.
Since his major league debut in 2014, the splitter has put him in rare company. On top of having the best splitter of any reliever, Neris is third to only Masahiro Tanaka (45.4) and Matt Shoemaker (29.25) in terms of pitch value. It’s so potent, he’s collected 247 strikeouts out of 563 career at-bats, including 31 this season alone (along with a sparkling .156 BAA), compared with the 55 he totaled in 2018.
Possibly even more impressive is the fact that he also commands himself exceptionally well in high-pressure scenarios. Over his career, Neris holds batters to an average of .198 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .180 in save situations, .150 when he actually locks down the save and .211 in late and close games (batting team tied, ahead by one or with the tying run on deck—all with a K:BB ratio of 3.42.)
Despite the fact that Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has come out and claimed that the team doesn’t have a closer (or any other labels for that matter) and saying he puts relief pitchers into situations that he believes benefits the team the most, Neris’ stats and usage seem to speak for themselves.
In 28 games this season, he’s either maintained or improved every one of those clutch stats and barring a slight dip in strikeouts, he’s lowered his walk rate (2.83 BB/9) and home run rate (0.94) while inducing ground balls at a career-best 47.5 percent. Even with a low BABIP (.233) and an unsustainable strand rate (88.2%), his SIERA, which is widely becoming the most accepted stat to quantify the quality of a pitcher’s true performance, still says, at worst, his ERA should actually be 2.75.
To date, Neris’ early season success has been so convincing that it was recently compared to former Phillies closer Brad Lidge’s start to 2008:
While that’s not to say Neris is on his way to a perfect season or that the Phillies on the way to a World Series, he is regardless in good company.
It’s easy to say that it takes a rare closer to sustain that kind of success over a career, but what he’s put on the table so far should give pause for consideration when it comes to the Phillies’ future.
Given Neris’ production so far on a salary of just $1.8 million in his first year of arbitration, it’s safe to say he’s one of the biggest steals amongst closers in Major League Baseball—in fact, he’s the tenth best value of any reliever in baseball. At the moment, Neris appears to be the closer for the near future (and should be up for All-Star consideration at that.) Regardless of the team’s current plans, Neris is clearly making a statement that he’s planning for the long term, whether the Phillies are smart enough to keep him in Philadelphia or not.
Jason Kates is a contributing writer for Bronx to Bushville.