The Ballad of an Interim Closer: Hector Neris Deserves a Little More Respect

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 12: Philadelphia Phillies Pitcher Hector Neris (50) celebrates after completing the ninth inning during the game between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies on September 12, 2019 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

Hector Neris receives a lot of criticism from the Phillies fanbase, but he’s a key member of this team and the Phillies were smart to tender him a contract.

Fun fact: Hector Neris is the longest-tenured player on the Phillies roster.

His major league debut was on August 5, 2014. A 25-year-old Hector Neris entered in the top of the 15th inning with the game tied at one. He struck out the first batter on three pitches. Catcher Carlos Ruiz fumbled the third strike, but he managed to throw to first baseman Ryan Howard for the out. The next batter grounded out to second baseman Chase Utley. The third batter flew out to center field, and the inning was over. Neris had retired the side on nine pitches.

The point of all that shameless name-dropping was to illustrate that Hector Neris has been here for a long time. Probably longer than you realized. He actually debuted almost a year before Aaron Nola, the next longest-tenured Phillie. While Nola also got to play with Ruiz, Howard, and Utley, Neris is the only current Phillie who can say he played in a game with Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins. Hector Neris is the bridge between the J-Roll era Phillies and the Bryce Harper era Phillies, so no matter how you feel about him as a pitcher, he’s undeniably an important part of this team’s recent history.

Hector Neris is the Phillies leader in games pitched (331) this decade, and despite his ups and downs, he’s ultimately been a very good reliever. Over the past five seasons, Neris ranks 26th among qualified MLB relievers in fWAR (4.3). To put that in perspective, Fangraphs lists 276 “qualified” relievers (min. 100 innings) over that time period. That means Hector Neris is in the top 10% of relievers in fWAR from 2016-2020. And that’s only counting the relievers who were good enough to get to pitch 100 innings. If we lower the threshold to 10 innings pitched in that time span, Neris ranks in the top 3%.

That being said, I know that Hector is a divisive player. And for good reason. For one thing, he can be maddeningly inconsistent. In the second half of 2017, he went 19/19 in save opportunities with a 2.48 ERA. He looked like he was going to be a dominant closer going forward. Then, in the first half of 2018, he blew 3 saves in only 13 chances with a 6.90 ERA. In addition to his inconsistency, Neris has blown saves in plenty of big moments over the years (19 BS in 91 opportunities). In the eyes of many fans, the sharp sting of those blown games negates any goodwill generated by his successes and longevity. 

However, while it’s true that Neris has been inconsistent, he’s also shown the ability to overcome his struggles. After his horrific start to the 2018 season, Neris spent six weeks in Triple-A working on his stuff. Since returning from that stint in the minors, Neris has pitched to a 3.11 ERA (2.94 FIP) in 112 games. In that time period, he ranks 9th among MLB relievers in fWAR (2.6).

It’s also not entirely fair to blame Neris for all of his blown saves. The Phillies have continually put too much pressure on Hector. For most of his career, he’s been the primary closer, which means he pitched in the highest leverage (a.k.a. the hardest) situations. If the front office had signed an actual, bonafide closer at some point over the past five years, Neris wouldn’t have had to pitch in many of those high-leverage innings. The Phillies should have made Neris a set-up man, but instead they just set him up to fail.

Hector Neris is far from perfect, but he’s a talented, homegrown player who has been in this organization for over a decade. When he debuted in 2014, he was just an unranked, middle-relief prospect, and today he’s the longest-tenured player on the roster. He represents the last real connection to the glory years, and he has a good chance of being part of the next great Phillies team too. I’m thrilled to have Hector back next season*, and hopefully, he’ll stick around for many seasons to come.

*But please, for the love of god Mr. Dombrowski, sign a real closer!

Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire