Growing up in Villa Altagracia in the San Cristobal province of the Dominican Republic, Hector Neris was a gifted athlete who enjoyed utilizing both his physical and mental gifts.
While enjoying the physical competition on the baseball diamond and on both volleyball and basketball courts, Neris also enjoyed testing and stretching his mind as an avid chess player.
On April 29, 2010 the Phillies signed Neris as a 20-year-old international free agent. Over the next three years the right-hander would prove that he was durable and had the ability to overpower minor league hitters.
From 2010-14 as he worked his way up progressively through each stop in the system, Neris struck out 363 opposition batters across 353.2 innings over 191 games.
Beginning with a one-game audition in August 2014, Neris has appeared with the big-league Phillies in each of the last five seasons. His performances in 2016-17 appeared to cement him as the club’s long-term closer. Over those two years, Neris allowed just 127 hits across 155 innings over 153 games while compiling a cumulative 188/56 K:BB ratio. He also served in a key role out of the Dominican Republic bullpen during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
But then from the very outset of the 2018 season, Neris saw very different results. It all began in the season opener in Atlanta. After retiring two of the first three batters, and following an intentional walk to Freddie Freeman, Neris surrendered a three-run, walk-off home run to Nick Markakis.
Neris was strong over his next three outings, striking out four and walking none over three shutout innings while recording his first Save of the season. However, in his fifth outing with the Phillies leading the Cincinnati Reds by 3-2 at Citizens Bank Park he surrendered three straight hits to start the top of the 9th to tie the game. The Phillies would win in 12 innings, but Neris had blown a Save opportunity.
Over the next few weeks, Neris would have few clean innings, and appeared to genuinely be losing confidence on the mound. By the end of June he had surrendered 35 hits over 30 innings, including an incredible 11 home runs. He had an unsightly .292 batting average against, and hitters had a huge .981 OPS against him.
Neris still had good stuff, as revealed by his 41/11 K/BB ratio. But he was simply making too many bad pitches. The Phillies had seen enough and sent him back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to try and regain his confidence.
The demotion clearly woke him up. Neris overpowered minor league hitters with a 31/7 K:BB ratio over 19 innings. He had a 1.45 ERA and allowed just nine hits across 18.2 innings. Perhaps most importantly he kept the ball in the park, allowing no home runs.
Phillies brass noticed the results and were receiving strong reports from the IronPigs coaching staff, and Neris was recalled in mid-August for another shot with the big club. It was as if the ugly results of the first-half of his season had been completely forgotten.
From August 15 through the end of the regular season, while the rest of the team was falling apart, Neris fully demonstrated that he was back to his old, dominating self. Over his final 20 games following his return he allowed just 11 hits over 17.2 innings for a .172 batting average against with a phenomenal 35/5 K:BB ratio. Neris also continued his progress from the minors by allowing no home runs.
For his fantastic performance, Neris was named as the National League’s reliever of the month for August even though he only pitched during half of the month. His overall 14.3 K/9 rate was baseball’s second-highest over the 2018 season.
Per Matt Breen at Philly.com, manager Gabe Kapler noticed a difference on his return. “What we saw is a guy who seemed a little bit more confident in his fastball,” Kapler said. “I think we saw a guy who was confident overall. The eye test tells me he used his fastball a little bit more and that he was even more effective with his split.”
During the early weeks of this Grapefruit League season down in Florida, Neris has tossed four innings over four games. He has surrendered four hits and a pair of earned runs, striking out five and walking two as he works to get ready for the 2019 season.
The Phillies have an improved bullpen entering the 2019 campaign. Veteran right-handers David Robertson and Juan Nicasio and left-handers James Pazos and Jose Alvarez join a group that also includes returnees Pat Neshek and Adam Morgan and youngsters Seranthony Dominguez, Victor Arano and Edubray Ramos. There will not be enough room to keep all of them when the club breaks camp and heads north for the March 28 regular season opener.
Can Neris regain the closer role that he lost with his poor first-half in 2018? He certainly still has that kind of stuff. If he pitches the way that he did over the final seven weeks last year he may force the Phillies decision-makers to consider that possibility long and hard.
MORE FROM PHILLIES NATION:
- John Middleton says his “stupid” money quote eliminated an easy way out
- Bryce Harper wants Mike Trout to join him on the Phillies in 2020
- Phillies Opening Day lineup projection 1.0
- “Matt Klentak is the general who engineered all this” says John Middleton
- Jayson Werth on the Phillies signing of Bryce Harper
- Off to a hot start, Dylan Cozens shoots for a big-league role
- Winner or loser? The Cole Hamels – Texas Rangers 2015 blockbuster
- Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper of Phillies among pre-season NL MVP favorites