The Phillies have won three consecutive games on walk-off hits. Back-to-back Héctor Neris blown saves made it possible.
Does it damper the mood in the clubhouse? Probably not. A win is a win and major leaguers will take them anyway they come. But if a trend continues, the team may have to rethink their ninth inning plans.
For now, Joe Girardi is not ready to name a new closer.
“Héctor, for the most part, has been really good for us this year,” Girardi said after Saturday’s game. “Closers go through it. We’ll get him back on track and we’ll go from there.”
Before Neris surrendered a game-tying home run in the ninth inning to Freddie Freeman in Thursday’s game against Atlanta, the Phillies closer threw nine consecutive scoreless outings and had an ERA under 2 on the season.
When Neris is on, he’s one of the better ninth inning arms in baseball. His meltdowns, however tend to be spectacular. All five home runs he has given up so far this season have either tied the game or gave the opponent the lead. It’s bound to happen to any pitcher who is consistently asked to pitch in close games in the later innings.
Dating back to the beginning of 2019, 11 of Neris’ last 15 home runs surrendered had cost the Phillies either a lead or a tie. Of those 11 games in which Neris had surrendered a back-breaking home run, the Phillies have a 5-6 record. He surrendered zero home runs in 2020.
Ninth inning relievers are heavily scrutinized around the sport. It’s especially true in Philadelphia, where all closers that come after Brad Lidge are held to a standard of perfection.
Including the postseason, Lidge went 48-for-48 in save opportunities during the 2008 season. In 78 2/3 innings, Lidge gave up two home runs. All of them came within an eight-day span between the end of July and early August. One was a grand slam to Atlanta’s Brian McCann that turned a close game into a lopsided victory. The other was a leadoff solo shot by St. Louis’ Troy Glaus to cut a two-run lead in half. In that game, the Cardinals had the bases loaded with one out. Lidge ended up striking out Nick Stavinoha and Joe Mather to save the game.
Sometimes, Neris is able to maneuver out of jams the same way Lidge did back in ’08. When he fails, fans let him know how frustrated they are with him. Is it warranted? Sure. Fans have the right to be voice their opinion about the product they pay to watch.
“The one thing I would tell my players is, ‘Look, the fans in Philly are extremely passionate, and they want us to win,'” Girardi said Thursday when asked about Neris leaving the field to boos. “They’re not booing really, who you are. It’s not like they’re saying that they don’t like you as a person. They just want to win. And it’s their way of showing frustration when we don’t win.”
Neris, the franchise’s longest-tenured player, is a consistent presence in a rather bleak era of Phillies baseball. Dating back to Neris’ MLB debut on Aug. 5, 2014, the Phillies are 444-561. They have yet to make the playoffs or put up a winning record during Neris’ tenure. Since Neris’ first full season in 2016, the Phillies bullpen has the fourth-worst ERA in the league (4.63).
Excluding his troubling 2018 season, Neris has been one of the league’s better relievers. Among the 24 pitchers who have appeared as a reliever in at least 75 percent of their games and has thrown at least 300 innings since 2016, Neris ranks in the top half in saves (81 – fourth), strikeout percentage (30.9% – sixth) and ERA (3.31 – eleventh)
But the Phillies have to take the good with the bad. Neris also ranks high in home runs allowed (44 – eighth), walk rate (9.0% – seventh-worst) and blown saves (23 – tied for fourth). He has blown 22 percent of his save opportunities since 2016, which doesn’t match up favorably with some of the league’s more dominant closers of the last half-decade such as Aroldis Chapman (11%), Kenley Jansen (11%) and Edwin Diaz (13%).
To reassure his faith in Neris, Girardi mentioned that the greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, also blew saves.
“I had the pleasure of catching and managing the greatest closer of all time,” Girardi said. “I saw him blow saves. We got to clear up the walks. That’s what we gotta take care of.”
It was his way of saying it happens to the best of them. The only problem is that it is silly to compare Rivera to any other closer ever, let alone an average to above average one in Neris. Rivera blew just under seven percent of his save opportunities in the regular season during his career.
The team does have options if they would like to pivot elsewhere. While Archie Bradley’s velocity was up in his outing on Saturday, he has struggled as a closer in the past. José Alvarado has serious command issues. Sam Coonrod lets inherited runners score. Connor Brogdon struggles with consistency. Brandon Kintzler is having an all-around terrible year. Maybe Ranger Suárez is the best option after Neris, but the Phillies might be better off by not confining him to one role.
Whatever the Phillies decide to do at closer, they’ll have to live with the flaws of whoever they appoint to toe the rubber in the ninth.
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