Who Are You: Pat Neshek
This post is part of a weekly series which will run each Thursday. Over the next several weeks, I’ll take a deep dive look at new members of the Phillies roster. We’re just a couple months away from settling down to watch these guys day-in and day-out for half a year, so let’s try to find out who they are and what to expect from them in 2017.
Pat Neshek – RHP
Born: 9/4/1980 – entering age-36 season
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 220 lb.
2016: 47.0 IP, 3.06 ERA, 23.2 K%, 6.0 BB%, 130 ERA+
MLB Career: 383.1 IP, 2.93 ERA, 24.5 K%, 7.8 BB%, 137 ERA+
Contract Status: Final year of a three-year, $18.5 million contract. Owed $6.5 million in 2017.
Originally drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 45th Round of the 1999 MLB Draft out of Park Center High School in Minnesota, Neshek opted to attend Butler University instead of signing. That decision worked out reasonably well for both the Twins and Neshek as they picked him three years later in the 6th Round of the 2002 MLB Draft. Neshek got more money that comes with a higher draft slot and the Twins got the player they wanted three years prior.
He advanced through the Twins system at the pace of more or less a level per year, making his major league debut in 2006. In 107.1 innings in his first two major league seasons, Neshek looked every bit the part of a relief-only prospect drafted in the early rounds. He had a 2.68 ERA and impressive strikeout (30.5%) and walk (7.9%) rates. Though he recorded no saves in that time, he appeared set up to be a consistent late-innings option in Minnesota.
Neshek struggled to start 2008 before he was shut down due to a torn UCL in May. He missed the rest of 2008, but didn’t elect to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the tear until the offseason, which caused him to miss the entirety of 2009 as well.
Upon his return in 2010, Neshek struggled before going on the disabled list once again for what was originally diagnosed as an inflamed middle finger–a malady perhaps likely to afflict many Americans in the coming years–that was later revealed to be an issue with the palm of his pitching hand. He spent most of that season in AAA, where he pitched 39.1 innings with a 3.89 ERA.
That offseason, the Padres claimed Neshek off waivers from the Twins. In San Diego, he split time between AAA and the majors and struggled at both levels with ERAs over 4.00 at both. He became a free agent in the offseason and signed a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. After not making the team out of camp–or at any other point during the season–the Oakland A’s purchased gave up mere cash considerations to acquire him in August 2012.
With the A’s, Neshek became the reliever he is to this day, posting a 2.70 ERA in 2012 and 2013 over 60 innings in Oakland. The most likely explanation for that resurgence is simply that he finally was back to full strength after his 2008 Tommy John surgery. Prior to surgery, his fastball averaged just over 90 mph, but in 2010 and 2011, it had dipped to around 87 mph. With the A’s, the velocity was once again over 90 mph and the results followed.
Once again a free agent in the 2013-14 offseason, Neshek settled for a minor league deal with the Cardinals. He made the team out of camp and has not seen the minor leagues since. After a first half in which he posted a 0.70 ERA in 38.1 innings, Neshek made his first–and only–All-Star team and slotted in as the team’s primary eighth-inning option.
He became a free agent once again following that single season in St. Louis and was finally rewarded for his performance with a three-year, $18.5 million deal from the Houston Astros. Over two seasons in Houston, Neshek threw 101.2 innings out of the bullpen and continued his late-career resurgence with a 3.36 ERA. He was traded this offseason to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash considerations.
Compared to Phillies pitchers of recent years, who have mostly had conventional deliveries, watching Neshek may be a bit jarring at first. As he goes into his delivery, he drops down in what appears is going to be a submarine motions, but, before release, he pops back up to more of a full sidearm approach. It doesn’t look pretty, but, aside from his single Tommy John surgery eight years ago, it hasn’t led to any problems.
As he has throughout his career, Neshek throws three pitches. He primarily relies on a sinker that averages around 90 mph, that, according to Brooks Baseball, generates both more whiffs and fly balls than other sinkers in the game. Over recent seasons, he has increasingly relied on his slider, so much so that it was his most-used pitch in 2016 with the Astros. He mixes in a changeup on less than 10 percent of his pitches, but it has significant separation from his sinker, averaging a full 20 mph slower than his sinker at slower than 70 mph.
The above graph of Neshek’s velocity throughout his major league career shows the perhaps Tommy John-related valley in sinker velocity in 2010 and 2011 between consistently averaging between 90 and 92 mph on the pitch at all other points in his career. You also see an increasing separation between that pitch and his changeup, which has dipped below 70 mph on average over the last two seasons, down from nearly 73 mph in 2012.
His pitch usage has generally held constant throughout his career, with the exception of his 2012 and 2013 season with the Athletics when he relied on his slider to an unusual extent.
For a consistently effective reliever like Neshek, he doesn’t produce many strikeouts. He doesn’t make up for that with a high rate of ground balls as his ground ball rate has remained between 29.9 and 35.2 percent in ever season of his career. That mark is decidedly below-average.
What he does do well is limit walks. You can see from the below graph that his strikeout rate declined sharply after his Tommy John surgery, but has bounced back to around 25 percent over the last three seasons with the Cardinals and Astros.
More telling for Neshek’s success, it appears, is his walk rate. He saw a spike in that metric in the two years following Tommy John–which is not at all an unusual aspect of recovery–before bringing it back down with the Athletics in 2012 and 2012, before decreasing it even further in his All-Star season in St. Louis.
Those spikes in walk rate map cleanly onto his bad seasons, suggesting that the true key to Neshek’s successful profile is not strikeouts, or velocity, or inducing ground balls, but limiting walks.
In terms of platoon splits, it’s not surprising that Neshek is more effective against right handed hitters than left handed hitters. The good news is that, for his career, both left and right handers are below average against Neshek with lefties posting a .313 wOBA and righties a .242 wOBA against him. Last season was a bit concerning on that front, as lefties hit for a .379 wOBA off him. However, that was in a sample of only 55 batters-faced, so it could be nothing more than small-sample noise.
Neshek has precisely one professional plate appearance and a professional batting line of 1.000/1.000/1.000. That single plate appearance came on April 30th, 2011 in the eighth inning of a Triple-A game against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox while he was with the Tuscon Padres. He hit a single off real major league pitcher Eric Stults.
Neshek should slot in behind Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez in the Phillies bullpen. Personally, I’d elevate him over Gomez and move the latter to a seventh inning or multi-inning role, but Pete Mackanin seems committed to keeping him in the closer role for the time being.
As such, Neshek will likely have to battle with Joaquin Benoit, our next subject in this series, for seventh inning appearances. With a pitching staff featuring pitchers with injuring concerns–Nola and Buchholz–and questionable ability to pitch deep into games–Vince Velasquez–there should be plenty of such innings to go around.
What the Phillies have done by adding Neshek and and Benoit this offseason is add depth to a bullpen that was, for most of 2016, a three-man effort. With the declining performance of Neris and Gomez in the final month of the season, we may have seen some of the effects of that lack of depth. The addition of Neshek and Benoit with a full season of Edubray Ramos, Matt Klentak as taken steps to prevent a similar situation from repeating itself in 2017.
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