The Philadelphia Phillies have been struggling of late, and a formerly effective late innings reliever as much as any of them.
Let’s start by saying that Hector Neris has been great this year. The raw numbers (2.27 ERA, 40 strikeouts in only 31.2 innings) bear that fact out.
He’s been called upon repeatedly to answer the bell in tough situations (his game Leverage Index this year is 1.60) and for the most part has answered the call by getting outs when needed.
During April and May, it felt like whenever the big right-hander entered a game, he was getting outs. There was no question about it.
Lately though, Neris hasn’t been the same dominant pitcher he was for those first two months. To show this, let’s take a look at his performance at various stages of the season to date.
Through April, Neris had pitched 14.1 innings and allowed just six hits, with a 23/4 K:BB ratio. He was scored upon in just one outing.
In the month of May, Neris pitched an identical 14.1 innings, allowing just nine hits. But his K:BB was less dominant at 15:6, and he was scored upon three times.
More disconcerting, over his last five appearances dating back to May 30th, Neris has allowed five hits in 3.2 innings, with a 3/5 K:BB ratio.
I’ll explain what may be happening in a moment, but first I must ask your indulgence while I grapple with the small sample size monster that is relief pitching.
This is why relievers are so volatile from year to year. By the time their stuff stabilizes, they probably have bounced from team to team, but I digress. Onward!
It has been some time since Neris has been recorded as having thrown a slider. While that pitch might clearly be his third best pitch, it was just last year that he featured it in his arsenal. This year, as you can see from the chart below, he has abandoned it extremely early in the season.
When looking at the table, you’ll notice during the first date group that Neris’ strikes thrown and swinging strike percentages were way up. Keep that in the back of your head.
The next date group ends with the game he pitched before his appearance in Washington on May 30th in which he surrendered three runs in 2/3 of an inning, his worst game of the year.
This one is a little more abstract since he was also quite dominant during this date group as well. Lots of strikeouts (though not at the same rate) and few walks, but a slight uptick in OPS. However, you start seeing a declining trend in his strikes thrown and swinging strike percentage during this time period.
The last date group represents his worst stretch of games this year, the one in which he is currently mired over the last five. It includes his May 30th implosion, as well as his most recent appearance against the Cubs where he couldn’t register an out.
While his percentage of strikes looking has gone up, he’s still seeing a decline in strikes thrown, as well as strikes swinging.
So what does this all represent?
Well, my theory is that with Neris having basically become a two-pitch pitcher, opposing hitters have adjusted to what he is throwing.
His splitter, well documented for its effectiveness this season, has become his go-to pitch, and with good reason. Hitters simply haven’t hit well against it.
However, in his past few games, Neris has left the pitch in some bad spots. Here is a zone map of where he had put the pitch during those first two date groups in the table above:
Neris was burying that pitch just below the zone, heightening its effectiveness. Remember, when the splitter comes in, it looks great until the last second when the bottom drops out.
The pitch was retiring hitters at a tremendous rate. This would account for the high numbers he was getting in the strikes thrown and swinging strikes department.
However, if hitters know it is coming roughly 60% of the time, there is little incentive to swing. If the pitcher is throwing a particular pitch that often in the same spot, it will fall out of the zone for a ball, meaning they are ahead in the count and Neris is now forced to throw a strike.
This accounts for the decline he was showing in the table above, and demonstrates the adjustment the league has made on him. The problem is that Neris has adjusted on his part by beginning to throw the pitch as a strike a little too often. Here is a zone map of the same pitch for May 30 to now:
You don’t need me to tell you that these are less than optimal locations to put a pitch which is averaging 89 miles per hour.
While this is an extremely small sample size, it should show that hitters are forcing Neris to put his favorite pitch in a spot where the chances of damage being done to it increase a great deal.
What can Neris do?
The most obvious adjustment would be to begin throwing his slider once again. If it’s a question of “feel”, perhaps this is what he should be working on in side bullpen sessions with the coaching staff.
More from That Balls Outta Here
- Philadelphia Phillies bullpen could still struggle greatly in 2023 season
- Philadelphia Phillies: Most impactful transactions in 2022
- How will Rob Thomson manage the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen in 2023?
- How Phillies’ Ranger Suárez is set to build on 2022 postseason dominance
- What can Philadelphia Phillies expect from Bryson Stott in 2023?
While it doesn’t have to be a frequently used pitch, it could be used as a “show me” pitch to effectively keep hitters honest. If they are not ready for it, Neris can start throwing it for strikes and then, hitters would have to be ready for that possible third offering that can get them out.
As I stated before, these are very small sample sizes we are working with. Perhaps Neris is just hitting a lull, and will be back to that early season form in short order.
But if his recent history is correct, he needs to make an adjustment very quickly, or else he’ll be just another fungible reliever in the long line of Phillies fungible relievers that came before him.