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One Big Question: Can Heath Hembree continue being a multi-inning weapon?

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Heath Hembree was an effective long reliever last year, despite that not being his profile.

Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros Photo by Eric Christian Smith/Getty Images

Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Heath Hembree.

The Question: Can Heath Hembree continue to be a multi-inning weapon?

Heath Hembree was first acquired by the Red Sox in the summer of 2014 in the deal that sent Jake Peavy to San Francisco. Although Hembree is past his days of being a closer of the future in his prospect days with the Giants, he still has the looks of being at least a solid reliever for the foreseeable future. Last season marked the most time he’s spent in the majors, and he looked very solid for most of that time. There were certainly moments of inconsistency — his 1.1 home runs per nine innings isn’t ideal — but he turned himself into a legitimate weapon in the middle innings. Hembree built up some trust from John Farrell, and one of the biggest roles he was able to play last season was as someone who could be called upon for multiple innings. This, in turn, allowed Farrell to save the rest of his relief corps on nights his starter couldn’t pitch deep into the game. Whether or not he can continue in that role moving forward remains to be seen.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, Hembree made 38 appearances in 2016. In four of them, he made at least nine outs. It’s only 11 percent of his outings, which doesn’t seem huge, but it’s a far cry from what his role was expected to be. We’ll get to that in a minute, though. The rate just about doubles when you look at how often he made at least six outs, as his eight such outings made up 21 percent of his outings. Finally, there were a whopping 19 outings in which he made more than three outs. That’s exactly 50 percent of his outings. I did that arithmetic in my head, which should make my old math professors proud.

As I said, this was never supposed to be the role he played. Typically, this kind of long relief role is designated for former starters that couldn’t quite stick in the rotation. That doesn’t describe Hembree, who was drafted as a reliever and has made all of one start in his professional career. Look at a table of the percentage of his outings in which he made more than three outs over the course of his career.

Year % Of Outings With >3 Outs
Year % Of Outings With >3 Outs
2016 50
2015 31
2014 15
2013 10
2012 20

Given the trend shown here, it’s clear that the Red Sox have a different idea of who Hembree can be than the Giants did. His rate has jumped up in each of the last two years, which happen to be the only seasons in which he has spent the entire year in Boston’s organization. That is one piece of evidence that would indicate he’s going to be kept in this role.

Another good sign is simply the makeup of the roster. One of the reasons Hembree was put into this role last year was because of the great lineup. Even on days in which the starter struggled and needed to be taken out of the game early, the lineup was good enough to keep the contest close. Most of the time, it wasn’t prudent to rely on a mop-up arm in these games. Hembree earned enough trust to be placed in these important early-inning situations. The offense figures to take something of a step back this year with David Ortiz’s absence, but it should still be high powered. The rotation should be better, but whoever occupies the final two slots will likely have their days in which they need to be removed early.

Another important piece to this is how Hembree performs after making these multi-inning appearances. Being able to throw multiple innings is great, but if it ruins you for the next week or so, it’s hardly worth it. At that point, you just find another converted reliever. The righty never took the mound the day following one of these outings, but he was able to make it back as quickly as two days after an outing of at least two innings with an average recovery time around three or four days. He was mostly effective in these outings, too, as he allowed an earned run in just three of the eight outings following a two-inning appearance. He didn’t see a major dropoff in control or strikeout stuff in these outings, either.

Looking ahead to this coming season, one would assume Hembree will be in the Opening Day bullpen. There’s an argument to be made that he’s not among the seven best relievers that are in contention for that spot, but he’s out of options. If he were to be exposed to waivers, someone would almost certainly claim him and take him out of Boston’s plans entirely. By pure talent, Hembree is simply a middle reliever and becomes expendable. However, he showed last year that he can be a multi-inning weapon that comes in handy when starters fail to go deep into games. That shouldn’t be as big of a problem in 2017, but it’s still bound to happen here and there. Despite never being projected as that kind of pitcher going up, all the signs point towards Hembree being able to take on that kind of role yet again this year.