Much has been made of the Philadelphia Phillies off-season signings of starting pitcher Jake Arrieta and first baseman Carlos Santana as free agents. The two veterans have each experienced ups and downs this year, reflecting the overall performance of the team.
There were two other free agents brought on board by general manager Matt Klentak as well. Right-handed relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter each had slow starts to their 2018 seasons. But as the club has slumped over the last month or so, the two veteran hurlers are closing the season strong out of the Phillies bullpen.
Neshek was known to most Phillies fans after he spent a strong first four months of 2017 with the team. He was traded from the Houston Astros to the Phillies in November of 2016, missing out on the first World Series championship in Astros history last fall.
With the Phillies, Neshek became a National League all-star for the second time in his career. Over 43 games he allowed just 28 hits in 40.1 innings with a dominating 45/5 K:BB ratio. The club was then able to deal him at last year’s trade deadline to the Colorado Rockies for a trio of low-level prospects.
After his 11th big league season had ended, Neshek became a free agent once again. On December 15, Klentak re-signed him, this time to a two-year, $15.5 million deal with a $7 million team option for a third season in 2020.
That same day, the 10-year veteran Hunter was inked to a two-year, $18 million contract following a strong 2017 campaign spent with the Tampa Bay Rays. Just like that, Klentak had greatly improved the Phillies bullpen for the 2018 season – at least on paper.
Things didn’t play out as hoped for the two veteran relievers, at least not at first. Neshek spent the first three months on the disabled list suffering from a strained right shoulder. He finally pitched in his first game on July 1.
Hunter was healthy, he just wasn’t very good. Before Neshek was activated, Hunter had pitched in 29 games over those first three months. In 25 innings he had allowed 33 hits, had a .308 batting average against, and a lofty 5.04 ERA.
But since Neshek’s July 1 activation, the pair has been solid nearly every time called upon by manager Gabe Kapler. The two pitchers have combined to throw 51 innings in which they have allowed just 40 hits.
Neshek himself has allowed 19 hits over 20 innings across 24 games. He has a 1.35 ERA, a 1.100 WHIP, and a 13/3 K:BB ratio. Hunter has vastly improved since the arrival of Neshek. Over his last 28 games he has allowed just 21 hits across 31 innings. He has a .193 batting average against in that time, a 2.32 ERA, and a 19/7 K:BB ratio.
The big change for Hunter was not necessarily support from Neshek, but an increased emphasis on the use of his cutter. Ben Harris with The Athletic quoted Kapler at the end of August on the effectiveness of the pitch: “We have stressed to Tommy just how good that pitch is…I will say that’s our practice to show guys how effective, how special their weapons are so they use them more frequently.”
Hunter walked Bryce Harper to lead off the top of the 9th inning. Neshek was then brought in, and promptly gave up a two-run homer to Anthony Rendon. But that blown opportunity was a rare failure and does not exemplify what they have brought to the bullpen over the last two and a half months.
Both righties are scheduled to return for the 2019 season. Hunter turned 32 years old back in July. Neshek just turned 38 years old last week. Phillies management has many questions to answer in the coming off-season. Those will mostly have to do with improving the everyday lineup in free agency, and sorting through the starting rotation options.
Both Neshek and Hunter are finishing up healthy and productive. They should provide strong leadership to a mostly young bullpen that should prove a strength as the Phillies prepare for the 2019 season.
MORE FROM PHILLIES NATION:
- Battle to sign Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper will be just part of crucial Phillies off-season
- Mailbag: what would be the ideal current Phillies lineup?
- Phillies could still overcome a month of losing to reach the postseason
- Super Bowl champion Eagles open a new season, and 2009 Phillies no how tough it is to repeat
- Opinion: Scott Kingery is being mishandled by the Phillies