Flip a coin. Heads, you win. Tails, you lose.
That’s what it’s like most nights when Hector Neris trots out of the bullpen to either begin, or close down, the ninth inning. Tonight, against the San Francisco Giants, the Phillies were treated to the good version of Hector Neris. Neris came into the ball game looking to protect a two run lead after Tommy Hunter was removed from the game. Neris entered the game to a smattering of boos raining down from the 22,000 fans that scattered the seats of Citizens Bank Park. The crowd’s collective gripe was partially directed at the incoming Neris, but not entirely targeted at the reliever. Some of those concerns were given to Manager Gabe Kapler, who removed Hunter from the ballgame after recording two outs in short order.
But as mentioned earlier, the fans witnessed the return of dominant Hector Neris, who used just nine pitches to collect a pair of strikeout en route to his seventh save of the season. This outing was of polar outcome than his previous one in Washington, where Neris failed to record an out, giving up two runs in the ninth, as the Phillies fell to the Nationals, wasting a spectacular performance by Jake Arrieta. Neris walked two and allowed two hits as his ERA ballooned to 4.15 with the loss.
Now what made Neris successful tonight against the Giants? Or, perhaps more troublesome, what made him so ineffective against the Nationals this past weekend? One would have to look no further than his splitter to find that answer.
Perhaps self admittedly, Hector Neris was timid to throw the split finger against the Nationals on Sunday. Maybe it wasn’t working the way he had hoped when he warmed up in the bullpen. Maybe the situation simply didn’t call for the splitter. The latter of those two inquisitions is a ridiculous claim, as there should be no occasion in which Neris is uncertain of his best pitch.Throughout his career, Neris has used the splitter 52 percent of the time against left handed hitters and 42 percent against righties. This season, however, his usage against right handed hitters is down eight percent. His fastball is up just two percent this season compared to his career, leaning evidence to say he’s actually using his sinker more frequently this season. He’s only getting swings and misses on just over four percent of his sinkers thrown to righties, compared to over eight percent on the splitter.
The pure nature of the splitter is inconsistent, but Neris has a better grip on the pitch than most. It’s what made Tuesday night’s outing so spectacular and so brief. Neris used the splitter to get ahead and he used it once more to finish each at bat.
When right, that pitch can buckle hitters knees and induce swing throughs. Neris’ splitter, when correct, rivals that of the game’s best. When inconsistent, the split is a flat, slow fastball that begs to be crushed. The difference in the two outings was Neris’ downward trajection, the natural, effortless movement of the pitch when it leaves his hand from the correct armslot. Often times, strikeouts accompany the success of Neris’ splitter on any given night. If you look through his 2018 game log, simply to save time, or his career game log, you’ll find a clear correlation between strikeouts and runs given up. Let’s just take 2018 for sanity’s sake. On Opening Day, Neris allowed three earned runs in 2/3 of an inning. He struckout none. On Sunday, he allowed two earned runs without getting an out. He struckout none. Outside of those two outings, Neris has allowed just one earned run this season, posting a 3.95 ERA over 13.2 innings pitched. In his 13 appearances not marred with high earned run totals, he’s struckout two or more in an inning or less of work six times.
The Phillies offer a tremendous bullpen, complete with depth and a handful of pitchers that can touch the high 90’s. But the bullpen will only go as far as Hectory Neris will take them. To this point, the Phillies sport the fifth best bullpen ERA, 3.13, trailing just the Diamondbacks, Brewers, Cubs and Blue Jays. Small sample size understood, the Phillies house seven relievers who have a 3.00 ERA of better, including the recently promoted Seranthony Dominguez, who pitched a scoreless frame in his Major League debut. That will be all for naught, however, if Hector Neris cannot secure victories out of the back end of the bullpen. To be cliche, the Phillies’ bullpen goes as Hector Neris goes. If he pitches the way he did against the Giants tonight in 90 percent of his outings, the fans will cease the booing pretty quickly.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports