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Héctor Neris Deserves More Attention

MLB: San Diego Padres at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

For as much attention as Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu garner from the Astros’ bullpen, Héctor Neris deserves his own considering how his season up to this point. Well, a reliever with a 1.84 ERA — a top-seven among all qualified relievers — in 58 23 innings ought to stand out. Although James Click’s tenure was ultimately, and unfairly, brief in Houston, he made a variety of moves to beef up a bullpen that was lacking depth behind Pressly. While Pedro Báez was a swing-and-miss in 2021, the decision to sign Ryne Stanek and Neris in back-to-back offseasons was a good call. Neris was arguably Click’s best free agent signing as the general manager with Yainer Díaz, acquired from the Guardians in 2021, as his best overall transaction.

Originally from the Phillies, Neris established himself as one of the game’s more consistent relievers during his tenure in Philadelphia, throwing in plenty of high-leverage situations along the way. While there is always a volatility risk involved with relievers, Neris’ track record did at least provide some confidence in what to expect for two seasons. A $17 million contract for two seasons of a reliever with his track record was never a worrisome contract per se, but he has met, if not exceeded, those expectations as evidenced by his 2.83 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 124 innings with the Astros.

Whenever a pitcher from outside of the organization joins the Astros, you may naturally assume that something may change with how they throw or what they’re throwing. And you’re probably right in that assumption more times than not. For Neris, he had predominantly thrown a split-finger fastball more than half of the time, with a four-seam and sinker in the mix. Occasionally a slider, but he has historically used that pitch sparingly. However, the primary combo — split-finger and four-seam — was Neris’ bread-and-butter for years, especially against left-handed hitters. While he did increase his sinker usage primarily against right-handed hitters that last season with the Phillies, the pitching lab in Houston decided to further change some things in how Neris used his offerings. Look at his pitch distribution of his three primary pitches below against right- and left-handed hitters this season.

Against RHH
Four-seam: 43.6%
Split-finger: 21%
Sinker: 29.5%

Against LHH
Four-seam: 61.4%
Split-finger: 37.9%
Sinker: 0.5%

With the Phillies, Neris alternated between his four-seam and splitter as the foundation of his repertoire. The Astros, however, have adjusted his pitch usage to best suit the situation, primarily based on the handedness of the opposing hitter. Against right-handed hitters, Neris typically alternates between a four-seam higher in the zone along with a sinker running in and lower. The splitter remains present but at a noticeably lower rate than even two seasons ago, his last in Philadelphia.

Against left-handed hitters, Neris primarily relies upon his four-seam and splitter, seemingly alternating between the two depending on the exact situation and count, although he favors his four-seam more so overall. But the splitter’s breaking action makes it a decent complement to his four-seam against left-handed hitters.

Neris’ results are loud and clear. Not only does he limit damage against right-handed hitters (.293 wOBA) relatively well, but he is even better against lefties (.220 wOBA). While his peripherals indicate that Neris has been a fair bit lucky this season, the actual results have been a boon. For example, he is currently sixth on WPA (Win Probability Added) for all qualified relievers with 3.09. He’s also tenth in Context Neutral Wins (WPA/LI) with 1.23. In other words, the right-hander has been a valuable reliever for the Astros this season, regardless of the leverage or situation. That said, Neris has also been particularly effective in high-leverage situations, holding opposing hitters to a .138/.254/.259 slash line with a .238 wOBA and .162 BABIP with runners in scoring position.

As you may already know, Neris is likely to decline his option with Houston, likely to explore free agency once again. After all, he is 34 and one more large payday is surely enticing. The question for the Astros is whether it’ll be wise to re-sign Neris to a new contract. On the one hand, Neris will likely regress in the near future considering how his walk rate has nearly doubled to 11.5% this season compared to last year. His .215 BABIP in 2023 is considerably less than his .281 career average. He is outperforming his FIP by over two runs. While Neris has a much more extensive track record of success than someone like Rafael Montero, any expectation that he will post another sub-2.00 ERA is outlandish. Another season or two more in line with his 2022 results feels more appropriate, although I would caution past success doesn’t guarantee future results.

On the other hand, the Astros will have a couple of openings in the bullpen, with Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek also scheduled to enter free agency. Re-signing Neris would go a long way in stabilizing the bullpen for next season, with him, Abreu, and Pressly continuing as a formidable trio. There is also no question that Neris has been a positive addition to the organization since Click signed him before the 2022 season. But you have to wonder how open Jim Crane is towards allocating another multi-year contract to an aging reliever, especially with the first year of Montero’s new contract fresh on his mind. Dana Brown may also want to go in a different direction with the bullpen in his first full offseason on the job. But if the Astros let Neris walk due to budget constraints based on Montero’s contract, it wouldn’t be a great look.

Regardless of Neris’ future, the veteran reliever deserves more attention for his performance this season. In a campaign when the pitching staff has regressed, Neris has not. He has been one of the best relievers in baseball in that regard. Plus, the guy is just nails when it counts. I mean, look at his performance over the weekend against the Padres. It’d be absolutely great if he continued that trend through September and October.