For the first three weeks of the season, the Phillies’ closer situation was as murky as any in the majors. That all seemed to change when, in the span of four days, Hector Neris picked up a pair of saves and also pitched a perfect ninth inning in a tie game at Colorado. Neris’ two performances at Coors Field were especially impressive, as he pitched 2.2 innings without allowing a baserunner and tallied five strikeouts.
Neris was the Phillies’ closer around this time last season, but by late May, he was out of the saves picture. The flyball-prone righty did not lack for whiffs or strikeouts, but too much of the contact he allowed was hard. That propensity hurt Neris again on Thursday night, as he gave up a game-winning home run to Starlin Castro in the 10th inning of the Marlins’ 3-1 victory. To his credit, Neris has been getting more ground balls so far this year, but flyballs and line drives have been hit against him with an average exit velocity of 98.0 mph.
These were the first runs scored against Neris since opening day, and he has been utterly dominant for the bulk of the young season. It’s too soon, then, to give him the “Not Very Stable” tag in the closer grid, but owners should be aware of Neris’ past struggles with hard flyball contact and with home runs in particular. He has now allowed 13 of them over 59 innings, going back to last season.
Remember how worried some owners were prior to the season about Raisel Iglesias‘ usage and how he might have to split saves with other members of the Reds’ bullpen? Those concerns were well-founded as David Bell had said that he was not always going to use Iglesias in the ninth inning. One has to wonder if Bell has reconsidered his bullpen strategy. Iglesias has been used for seven of the Reds’ last eight save opportunities, and he missed that one save opportunity because he had been used in the ninth inning of a tie game.
Iglesias’ latest save came in Thursday night’s 4-2 win over the Braves, and it was the first time since April 6 that he had been used for more than one inning. He was called on to finish the eighth inning after Zach Duke gave up Freddie Freeman’s one-out two-run homer. After preserving the Reds’ 3-2 lead in the eighth, he came back out for the ninth to earn his sixth save of the season.
Not to be overlooked from Thursday night’s game was the performance of David Hernandez in the seventh inning. He had the thankless task of escaping a bases-loaded, no-outs situation inherited from Luis Castillo. All Hernandez did was strike out all three batters he faced, throwing strikes on 11 of his 13 pitches.
Brad Hand pitched a 1-2-3 inning against the Astros to seal the Indians’ 2-1 win, giving him seven saves in as many tries. It’s been a successful, but odd, season for Hand so far. He has nearly eliminated his sinker in favor of more four-seam fastballs, which would typically bode well for more strikeouts. However, Hand is throwing his four-seamer with less spin, so not surprisingly, his SwStr% (11.5 percent) and K% (32.6 percent) are down from 2018. What makes less sense is that Hand is getting fewer grounders, both on his four-seamer and overall. Of 27 batted balls allowed, only three (or 11.1 percent) have been ground balls.
This early on, this odd combination of a declining whiff rate and an extremely low ground ball rate could just be noise. If it does persist, it could spell trouble for Hand down the line.
As fantasy owners are all too aware, Hand’s former teammate, Cody Allen, has had a rough start to his tenure as an Angel, and he has been removed from the closer’s role. While Thursday night’s 11-5 win over the Yankees did not provide any clues as to who might get the first crack at closing in place of Allen, the deposed closer did not make a strong case to get back into the saves mix. He entered in the top of the eighth inning with a seven-run cushion, and he began with back-to-back walks to Mike Ford and Giovanny Urshela. A one-out single and a two-out bases-loaded walk later, he was replaced by Hansel Robles.
Quick hits: Kenley Jansen (8) and Sergio Romo (4) both recorded saves on Thursday…Jose Leclerc got in some low-leverage work on Thursday night, entering in the seventh inning with the Rangers trailing the Mariners 12-0. He inherited runners at the corners with one out and immediately loaded the bases with a walk to Tim Beckham. The next batter, Daniel Vogelbach, expanded the lead to 14 runs with a ground rule double. However, Leclerc stranded Vogelbach by striking out Ryon Healy and Omar Narvaez in succession…In tossing two scoreless innings against the Diamondbacks, Francisco Liriano has started off his return to the Pirates by pitching 9.1 innings with no runs allowed. The lefty is throwing fewer sinkers and has raised his SwStr% from last season’s 10.0 percent (achieved almost exclusively as a starter) to 16.0 percent.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.