ALLENTOWN — Hector Neris doesn't want to think anymore.
If his most tumultuous of summers — headlined by two demotions to Lehigh Valley in the second half of June alone — has taught him anything, it's that he needs to turn his brain off when he's on the mound.
"After I stayed here a couple days, it gave me a chance to be like, 'Don't think [about] everything, just pitch,' " said Neris, the former Phillies closer now exiled (at least temporarily) to the minor leagues, on Tuesday.
And what has not thinking helped him with? "Everything," he said. "Command, rhythm, everything."
In his 11 appearances for the IronPigs — nine of which have come since his most recent demotion on June 30, which followed a three-homer implosion of a relief outing for the Phillies — Neris has a compiled a stellar array of numbers: a 2.40 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP, a .135 opponent batting average, a 14.7 K/9 rate. That becomes even more impressive when considering Neris' major-league ERA is a whopping 6.90 this year.
Granted, it is just triple-A, and Neris did produce one of his now-characteristic disaster outings just last weekend (three runs allowed in a single inning of a wild game against Toledo), but the 29-year-old reliever then less characteristically bounced back by throwing a perfect inning in Tuesday's win over Gwinnett.
"He's throwing the ball as good as anyone we have down here," said Ironpigs pitching coach David Lundquist. "The command has been much better."
For as much attention as Neris' slider overuse has received this season as the potential cause of his struggles, it still composes a very small portion of his overall repertoire. He has thrown it barely over four percent of the time in MLB in 2018. Lundquist said he's not used it at all in triple-A this month.
And Neris, for one, will argue that his snafus can be traced more to poor execution of certain pitches rather than poor decisions about when to use them.
"You can pick one pitch at a time. When that situation is coming, you can't say, 'Oh, don't throw that pitch because it did that [last time],'" he said. "It's when you miss the zone where you've got a bad time."
That's all part of Neris' new not-thinking strategy: get everything working effectively in practice, and then simply go out and do it during games. He's working with Lundquist to shorten his leg lift and make his overall delivery quicker and more compact, and he's simultaneously trying to regain control of his fastball.
There is, after all, a lot to fix with his fastball. Last season, opponents at the major-league level had a .277 batting average and .470 slugging percentage against it; this season, those rates rose dramatically to .379 and 1.035. Neris' rate of missing the zone with his fastball was up more than three percentage points, meaning opponents were swinging at it four percentage points less often — yet when they were swinging, they were regularly making solid contact.
His splitter stats, though, haven't shown those same disconcerting trends. That pitch has essentially remained just as effective — dominant, even — as it was in 2015 and 2016, when Neris rose through the Phillies' reliever ranks to lock down the closer role. So with Lehigh Valley, while seeking to overhaul and revamp his fastball, he's leaned on his splitter to bail him out of jams.
"[He's got] more consistent command of the fastball … and the splitter has been consistent in and in-and-out of the zone," said Lundquist. "His timing and his delivery is really good right now, and he's been getting more swing-and-miss."
Evidently, Neris' efforts to stop thinking are working, at least for now. The Dominican has thrown 10 shutout innings out of 11 total for the IronPigs.
And that success is translating over to his demeanor, too.
"Right now, he's very confident — you see a difference in him," Lundquist said. "He's having fun."