The Philadelphia Phillies open a series with the Chicago Cubs, and the bullpen could end up a big key to the home team’s chances for victory.
Last season, one of the few bright spots as the team was bottoming out with the worst record in baseball was the Phillies’ improving bullpen.
Ken Giles emerged as a true closer before being shipped off to Houston during the off-season, with other pitchers also making their case for a future in the Phillies bullpen.
One who did not make as good of a case as some of the others was Hector Neris. The 26-year old Dominican struggled with keeping batters off the ball, carrying a 8.5 H/9 in 32 appearances during the 2015 campaign.
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Flash-forward to this season, and Neris has turned that around, lowering his WHIP from a solid 1.19 to an impressive 0.88 mark. In addition, he has raised his strikeouts from an impressive 9.1 K/9 to an astounding 11.4 strikeouts-per-nine innings pitched.
Manager Pete Mackanin has already noted Neris’ success, calling on him to pitch in 30 of the Phillies’ 57 games (more than half!). Some worry that Mackanin could be overusing Neris, throwing him in back-to-back games numerous times, and even in three games in a row twice.
Neris’ success has come in part to finding his stride with his fastball-splitter combo. Brooks Baseball‘s Pitchf/x describes the pairing in their “At-a-Glance”:
"His splitter generates a high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ splitters, is much firmer than usual, has some natural sink to it and has slight armside fade. His fourseam fastball generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, has essentially average velo, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers and has slight armside run."
While Neris’ fastball has an average velocity of 94 mph, he succeeds with it thanks to its run. Pitchf/x has the pitch moving an average of 6.77 in to the right-handed side and upwards an average of 8.92 inches.
When a fastball with that speed is running up and in on right-handed batters, it’s hard for them to make contact, and they carry just a .077 batting average against Neris.
What is also helping Neris to succeed is the increased use of his splitter. In fact, it’s become his primary pitch, as he has thrown it 59.7% of the time, compared to only using it 28.2% last year. It breaks hard to the right-handed side, which again puts righties up against the wall.
Neris has also abandoned his slider, but it was probably for the best. In 2015, it had a -2.88 corrected Pitch/Fx linear weight value. This year, he has thrown it only six times according to Brooks Baseball, and it could even be the Pitchf/X cameras reading a splitter the wrong way.
Neris’ strong fastball-splitter combo has led to overall success this year, especially against righties, who often to deal with both pitches running in against them.
The Cubs feature strong right-handed hitters in Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell, but they could run into some trouble against Neris, if the Phillies lineup can score enough to make the late innings count.