A little less than four weeks ago, I wrote about Phillies rookie Victor Arano. Originally expected to play only a minimal role (if any role at all) with the club this season, Arano has paired with Seranthony Dominguez to lead a Philadelphia bullpen that has aided the club’s surprising pursuit of a division title. Arano’s opportunity to provide meaningful innings would not have been possible had certain other relievers for the Phillies not fallen by the wayside. Tommy Hunter (0.5 WAR) and Pat Neshek (0.6 WAR) have certainly been serviceable, but they’ve fallen a little short of expectations. As for projected closer Hector Neris, he’s fallen well short of them, putting up a 6.90 ERA, 6.39 FIP, and -0.7 WAR through the end of June before earning a demotion to Triple-A.
Neris was recalled to Philadelphia on August 14th and has looked like an entirely different pitcher since his return. In the smallest of samples, Neris has struck out 16 batters, walked one, and allowed three hits in 26 batters faced. This performance — one of the best two-week stretches by a reliever this season — would have been entirely unexpected given his first half. His return comes at a time when the rest of the Phillies’ bullpen performance has been flagging, and his continued excellence will be a necessity if the team wants to emerge from a crowded Wild Card field.
Neris has had a roller coaster of a season. He entered the year having put up back-to-back one-plus WAR campaigns for Philadelphia, solidly occupying the closer role for a young exciting team. Despite this, the projections weren’t particularly kind, with our Depth Charts forecasts — a combination of Steamer and ZiPS with some playing-time alterations — calling for Neris to put up only 0.6 WAR on the season, barely cracking the top 100 relievers for the year.
That outcome would have been welcome compared to the reality. I cited Neris’s first-half numbers above, but they deserve repeating: 6.90 ERA, 6.39 FIP, -0.7 WAR. That represented the worst WAR, second-worst FIP, and third-worst ERA in baseball. The final act before Neris’s demotion was especially nightmarish. On June 29th against the Nationals, Neris threw one inning and faced eight batters, allowing five runs, four hits, one walk, and three (!) home runs. The next day, Neris was on his way to Lehigh to iron a few things out.
There might not have been as many issues as one might suppose. Even with such a high ERA and FIP, Neris’s performance wasn’t a lost cause. He was still striking out 12.3 batters per nine, 16th-best in baseball over the first half. Even during his meltdown against the Nats, he struck out two batters along the way. He wasn’t wild, either, walking just 3.3 per nine. In fact, he ranked 30th in the first half with a K-BB% of 22.4 points
What drove the ERA and FIP up were the home runs: 11 in 30 innings, or 3.3 per 9. This is the worst HR/9 in half of a season since 2002, and if extended over a whole year would represent the worst HR/9 for a qualified reliever in baseball history. The 30.6% HR/FB and 3.60 xFIP implied that, if he could get the homers under control, Neris would be fine. Even good, perhaps.
Since his return, he has controlled the homers, not allowing a single one at this point in time. Additionally, he’s missed even more bats than before. Since coming back, Neris has struck out 61.5% of the hitters he’s faced — 16 of 26 — or an improbable 19.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Over the course of the season, only five relievers have had a better K/9 over a two-week stretch: Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz, Jace Fry, Josh Hader, and Juan Nicasio. In fact, measured by FIP, Neris has had one of the most dominant two-week stretches of any reliever this season (minimum 20 batters faced). The best of those stretches can be found alone. (Since many of these top runs would overlap, only a player’s best performance in any overlapping time period was selected.)
The underlying numbers for Neris are encouraging, as well. His fastball has a touch more zip, and both his fastball and splitter have been generating a higher rate of whiffs and lower damage on contact.
This turnaround could not have come at a better time for the Phillies. After entering the month with a lead in the division, they have gone 11-14 to fall 3.5 games behind the streaking Atlanta Braves. While not entirely to blame — an especially anemic offense is likely mostly to blame — the modest bullpen performance has contributed to this downturn. Aside from Neris’s 0.4 WAR this month, the rest of the bullpen has put up -0.2 WAR, a total that would rank among the 10 worst bullpens over that timespan. In addition, the non-Neris relievers have put up -1.53 WPA, sixth-worst in baseball for the month. The team as a whole is 2-9 on the month in games decided by two runs or fewer. In short, Neris — along with a surprising Adam Morgan — has been keeping the Phillies’ back end afloat at a very crucial time for the team.
With around 30 more games to go in the season, the Phillies are in a very precarious spot. Since August 1st, their chances of making the playoffs have fallen by nearly 40 percentage points. Our projections give them a 23.3% chance of winning the division and an 8.2% chance to win a Wild Card spot. To accomplish the latter, they’ll have to climb over some combination of the Brewers, Cardinals, D-backs, Dodgers, and Rockies. While the unexpected turnaround of Hector Neris has given the team’s bullpen a much needed boost, he will have to continue his domination while getting a lot of help from his teammates if the Phillies want to see October baseball.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.