The Phillies used 31 pitchers last season — excluding position players — and only two were better in 2019 than they were in 2018. One was left-hander Ranger Suarez, who now finds himself in a battle for the Phils’ fifth starter’s job.
The other was closer Hector Neris, who pitched like an All-Star for much of the season. Neris pitched to a 2.93 ERA in 68 appearances, finished 49 games, saved 28 and struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. He held lefties to a .167 batting average and righties hit just .201.
His ERA was higher than 2.70 in just two of six months.
Because of Neris’ success and relative reliability last season, he received a significant offseason raise. The Phillies avoided arbitration with the soon-to-be-31-year-old by signing him to a one-year, $4.6 million contract with a club option for 2021. That club option includes incentives that could push the total value of the second season over $8 million based on games finished.
It’s a win-win kind of deal for the Phillies, who would welcome that 2021 price tag because it would mean Neris pitched well in key spots.
Neris was not expected to be the Phillies’ closer in 2019. Heading into the season, David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez both appeared to have the advantage. But both struggled early and both were lost for the season before the second week of June. Neris seized the job by holding down his first 14 save opportunities before his first blown save on June 14 in Atlanta.
Neris’ success has always been based on his splitter, which falls out of the strike zone and under a hitter’s bat when it’s thrown well. When Neris doesn’t have the pitch working, it flattens out and can move horizontally, directly into the sweet spot of the bat. In 2019, Neris threw the splitter nearly 66% of the time compared to just under 50% the year before.
For years, the question has been how many splitters Neris can throw before the elbow stress results in a long-term injury. Somehow, he has avoided that catastrophic injury, and the Phillies’ thin bullpen can’t afford to lose him for even a few weeks in 2020.