The Philadelphia Phillies entered the 2019 season without a set closer, with Seranthony Dominguez, David Robertson and Hector Neris all seen as potential back-end options for manager Gabe Kapler. Due to injury and performance, the role has fallen to Neris, who is having a season worthy of All-Star consideration.
Neris, who was demoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last June, posted a 2.04 ERA in 20 games after the All-Star Break in 2018, and he’s carried that success into the 2019 season. Neris features one of the best pitches in baseball and he is trusting that pitch more than ever this season.
It may seem like a surprise that Neris is dominating in 2019, but he had one peripheral that pointed to him possibly getting to this point. When you examine Neris’ FIP and xFIP, we can see that they were 4.04 and 2.71 in 2018. Those are both significantly lower than his 5.10 ERA, so he may have been a victim of bad luck.
But the FIP to xFIP difference shows that Neris had a very big issue with home runs last season. Neris allowed a home run on 22.9 percent of fly balls last season—which was the 10th highest among relievers with 30 or more innings pitched. If Neris could find a way to cut that rate even a little bit, he had the chance to become a very good reliever for the Phillies.
Fast forward a season and Neris is allowing a home run on 12.5 percent of fly balls—which is a great improvement. Part of that reason may be a philosophy change in how he is attacking hitters.
In 2018, Neris threw his splitter 49.1 percent of the time, while featuring his four-seam fastball 42.6 percent of the time. This season Neris has completely changed his pitch utilization—throwing his splitter 71.8 percent of the time to just 24.4 percent with the four-seam fastball.
Neris’ adjustment makes a lot of sense, as the splitter has consistently produced better results.
Last season, hitters posted a .193 batting average and .284 slugging percentage against Neris’ splitter. When it came to the four-seam fastball, hitters finished with a .254 batting average, while slugging a whopping .571. The change to the splitter only made sense for Neris, who is still getting elite results on his splitter, as he’s held the opposition to a .160 batting average and a lowly .227 slugging percentage when using his signature pitch.
The change isn’t so much for left-handed hitters as it is against opposing righties. In 2018, Neris featured his splitter just 37.5 percent of the time to right-handed hitters. In 2019, the pitch is being featured 71.2 percent of the time—which is a massive difference. The change for right-handed hitters also made sense with Neris holding them to a .156 batting average and .244 slugging percentage. The pitch was also elite in generating whiffs a year ago, drawing a swing and miss on 60.2% of pitches. Add the two together and it made sense to feature the pitch more often.
An additional way to combat the home run issues is to generate ground balls. Neris is doing just that with his splitter this season, as he’s gotten the opposition to hit a ground ball on 52.2 percent of splitters.
To this point in the 2019 season, Neris has the best splitter in baseball, according to FanGraphs’ pitch value metric. Neris is thriving for the Phillies – he has a 1.95 ERA, 2.86 FIP and 3.11 xFIP.
It really appears that Neris has found his way in 2019 and it’s following an elite pitch majority of the time. He still features a mid-90s fastball that he can sneak by hitters when they’re expecting to see the splitter. With seven (that’s not hyperbole) relievers on the injured list, Neris has provided much-needed stability late in games for the Phillies. If he continues to lean on that splitter, he should be able to maintain his strong start to the 2019 season.
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