CLEARWATER, Fla. — Hector Neris racked up 102 strikeouts, the second-most ever by a Phillies reliever, during his breakout 2016 season.
The right-hander did it basically with a two-pitch mix — a power fastball and a darting splitter that manager Pete Mackanin likes to call “an invisible pitch.”
After last season, Neris reflected on his success, which included a 2.58 ERA over 80⅓ innings, the third-most among NL relievers.
Neris determined that he would need to diversify his pitch repertoire if he’s going to continue to have success.
So during winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, he dusted off his seldom-used slider and threw it more. He’s polishing it up in this camp and plans to use it in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and during the regular season.
“I think it’s something that can make me better,” Neris said. “I’ve never had the confidence in it that I had in my other pitches, but I’m working hard on it. It will give me a third option for the hitter to think about.”
Neris threw a slider 2.9 percent of the time in 2016, according to MLB Statcast. He threw more than 49 percent splitters and 46 percent fastballs.
“In the big leagues you have to respect the hitter,” Neris said. “The hitters know me now and they know I throw fastballs and splitters. I need to have that third pitch for them to respect. When I throw it, I want them to say, ‘What is that?’”
Neris’ splitter darts down and in to a right-hander hitter. The slider will break the other way.
Neris has talked about different grips on the pitch with guest spring-training instructor Larry Andersen, who threw a million sliders in his career.
“He threw some nasty ones today,” Andersen said after Tuesday’s workout. “The pitch will help him.”
McLaren to WBC
Bullpen coach John McLaren will leave camp on Wednesday and travel to Japan as Team China assembles for the World Baseball Classic. McLaren will manage that club. He also skippered the club in 2013.
Asked if he spoke more than seven words of Chinese, McLaren quipped, “That would be pushing it. I’m still trying to conquer English.”
Team China will provide a translator for McLaren, though there is a universal element to baseball communication.
“This is my third time going to the WBC,” McLaren said. “I love it.”
Almost game time
The Phillies will play their annual exhibition game against the University of Tampa on Thursday. The Phils are expected to play many of the young players that will make up their Triple A Lehigh Valley roster. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr., who pitched at Double A Reading last season, will come over from minor-league camp to make the start. Pitching coach Bob McClure said he expected to get several projected big-league relievers work in the game.
Alec Asher will start the Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees on Friday in Tampa and Adam Morgan will start Saturday’s games against the Yankees in Clearwater.