Hector Neris Sure Looks Like An Elite Reliever
Entering the season, Hector Neris was in possession of one of those beautiful back-of-the-bullpen starter kits. He had the requisite devastating, whiff-inducing secondary pitch as well as a solid fastball off of which to work. However, as we have seen time and again, possession of a promising pitch arsenal does not an elite reliever make. The proof is in the pudding or whatever your preferred cliché is.
At the start of the season, it looked as though Hector Neris was whipping up a fine batch of proof that he would be able to put it all together. Through the month of April, he posted a stellar 0.63 ERA to go along with an equally as impressive 43.4 K%. Much of this success was attributed to a splitter which was downright unhittable.
But then, as you might expect, his stat line appeared to regress towards the mean. He posted a 4.95 ERA and pedestrian strikeout and walk rates (21.8 K%, 12.6 BB%) over his next 20 innings. As a result, Neris found himself on June 15th with an uninspiring 3.15 ERA next to his name. He looked like a pitcher who had pitched over his head in April and it was natural to wonder if, perhaps, the magic of his splitter had worn off. But then something changed.
Since June 15th, Neris has pitched 30 innings and the results have been simply tremendous.
Last 30 IP: 21 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 40 K, 1.20 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 35.4 K%, 2.7 BB%
That’s a fantastic line, but the thing that stands out the most to me is the almost Kershavian 40:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not only have his strikeout and walk rates moved towards his stellar April production, they’ve actually steadily improved since mid-June.
Since the All-Star Break, Neris has pitched 14.1 innings and yielded just one walk and one run. His 40.3 K% and 1.6 BB% in the second half give him a 38.7 K-BB% which is second among major league relievers since the All-Star Break trailing only old friend Ken Giles (40.8%).
There’s been one other crucial shift in Neris’ outcomes as the season has progressed. Take a look at a rolling-chart of his GB% and FB%:
This ground ball increase has been critical because the biggest flaw in Neris’ game has been his susceptibility to the home run ball. In his first go around the league last summer, the only real knock on his game was a massive 1.79 HR/9. Last year league average HR/9 was 1.02 and this year that figure has jumped all the way to 1.17 thanks to the home run surge across major league baseball this season. However, Neris’ HR/9 has fallen all the way to 0.98. What’s notable is that the massive fall in HR/9 has occurred despite the fact that Neris’ HR/FB rate is virtually unchanged from a year ago — 15.1% in 2015, 14.9% this year. This means the key to Neris keeping the ball in the yard has been his ability to get the ball on the ground. So how is he doing that?
There have been two significant changes for Neris as the season has carried on. First, he began to reintegrate his sinker into his arsenal right around the same time as his mid-June turn around.
Second and, perhaps even more importantly, Neris has seen a remarkable velocity increase as the season has progressed.
Per Brooks Baseball, he’s added about 2.5 mph in velocity to his fastball and his splitter. Velocity isn’t everything, but when a pitcher can command higher velocity, it’s a definite plus. And, as his absurd K:BB ratio has helped to demonstrate, command has not been a problem for Neris.
Already 27 years old, it’s hard to say with any confidence that Neris will be a key cog in the Phillies bullpen over the next few years. It will be easier to believe in the newfound velocity only after he shows an ability to maintain it for an extended period of time. However, right now he’s pitching like a relief ace and the Phillies have every incentive to let him continue to do so through the end of the season.
His 63 appearances is tied with Zach Duke for most in the majors this season, so it’s likely that he’ll see an increase in off-days when rosters expand in September. But he’ll still get his outings, hopefully in some high leverage situations if the Phillies offense cooperates. If he can sustain what he’s doing now, the Phillies will have to decide whether to hold tight or try to ride the ridiculous relief pitching market one more time and trade Neris for other future building blocks.