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2017 Red Sox Review: Heath Hembree

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A look back at the year that was for Heath Hembree.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Heath Hembree.

The Positives

For as great as the Red Sox bullpen was in 2017, Hembree wasn’t really a headlining member of the unit and he wasn’t even really considered to be part of the group for the postseason. That being said, he was around all year long and there were certainly some things that went right to allow him to stick around for the entire season. Chief among them was the fact that he was able to get the most strikeouts he has ever gotten in his career. Hembree finished the season with with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings, a two strikeout increase from last year and a career-high. There were some significant improvements made by Hembree, who increased his whiff rate by nine percentage points to 30 percent, per Baseball Prospectus. The biggest driver here was an increased usage and improved slider. In the past he relied almost entirely on his fastball, but in 2017 the slider proved to be a real weapon and it made him a much more reliable pitcher.

The strikeout rate highlighted his season, but it wasn’t the only good thing about. There was also his April, which seems like forever ago but was really strong. Through the first month of the season, it seemed that Hembree may have taken The Leap™. That clearly wasn’t the case, but it was still a great month in which he pitched to a 1.42 ERA while allowing an OPS of just .498. It was also, not coincidentally, the only month of the season in which he did not allow a single home run.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Moving on, there were four more little things that made 2017 one that provided some encouraging signs for Hembree. The first was his performance in non-low-leverage situations. While his overall numbers to end the year weren’t great, a lot of his damage came in low-leverage spots. When there was some actual pressure, he pitched better. According to Baseball-Reference, Hembree allowed a .768 (not great, but solid) OPS in high-leverage spots and a .609 mark in medium-leverage compared to a .929 OPS in low-leverage. Along those same lines, he was tremendous in extra innings, and as we know those games were a key for the Red Sox making it as far as they did. In eight extra-inning appearances, he pitched to a 1.72 ERA while allowing an OPS of just .563.

Along with his performance in pressured situations, Hembree also showed off some improved control. For the first time in his career he walked fewer than three batters per nine innings, and combined with his improved strikeout rate it actually led to solid peripherals. Granted, I think those numbers exaggerate his success, but it backs up the positives here. Additionally, the simple fact that he stayed healthy for the second year in a row is a good thing. It’s not easy for pitchers to last an entire season, but Hembree is showing that he can hold up through a major-league season, which is no small feat.

The Negatives

For all of the steps forward we saw from Hembree this year, he still didn’t take the leap some of us were hoping for in his age-28 season. His 3.63 ERA and his 3.89 FIP are fine, but A) they aren’t great and B) his 5.96 DRA better reflects the pitcher I saw over the season. The biggest issue, as always, was the home run ball and hard contact in general. With his flyball tendencies, he allowed ten homers in 62 innings or 1.5 per nine innings. The issue for him is fastball command because while he throws relatively hard he’s not enough of a flamethrower to get a middle-middle fastball past major-league hitters. In addition to that, he allowed a hard contact rate over 33 percent for the second consecutive year.

It wasn’t just the home runs and hard contact, either. In the past, Hembree at least looked like someone who could serve as a ROOGY who could shut down batters from the right side even if lefties could tee off on him. That was not the case this year, as there were no real platoon splits off the righty. Normally, that wouldn’t be a bad thing but in this case it was that hitters from both side were performing well. By the end of the year, both righties and lefties had an .803 OPS against Hembree on the season.

Finally, he got worse as the year went on. I mentioned his health as a positive, and while it was great that he stayed on the field it was not great that he couldn’t stay effective. After April he appeared to be a major part of the bullpen, but he never justified that role throughout the rest of the year. Other pitchers stepped up, fortunately, but the Red Sox needed more consistency than they got from Hembree.

Also, at one point Hembree was sporting some truly horrific cornrows. It was a low point not only for the righty’s season, but also for humanity as a whole.

The Big Question

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

In short, no. If you’ll recall, in 2016 Hembree served a surprising role as a multi-inning arm who could throw two innings at a time and bridge between a short start and the back of the bullpen. It was not a development we saw coming, but it was important to that roster. That didn’t really happen to the same extent in 2017. This past year, he averaged exactly one inning per appearance, had just six appearances of at least two innings and recorded more than three outs in just 18 of his 62 appearances. Although he didn’t stick to that role, it wasn’t a terribly bad thing. First of all, a lot of that had to do with the team having a better rotation and that role being less necessary. Furthermore, that was never the ideal role for Hembree, either. If he’s going to succeed in this league it’ll be one inning at a time. Still, he will be asked to do it at times because to this point he hasn’t earned a late-inning role.

Looking ahead to 2018

Hembree is heading into his final pre-arbitration year, and it seems almost certain that he’ll be back in Boston. That being said, he’s out of options and is running out of chances. The Red Sox are looking to contend, of course, and if they can find a better option for their bullpen Hembree will be among the first to get the boot. He’ll stick around in this league for a few more years at least, whether he’s on the Red Sox or not, but it’s possible he won’t be long for Boston.