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Question: I feel like Heath Hembree is the new Junichi Tazawa. Reliable arm that has earned Farrell's trust and will now be used a million times until he sucks for the rest of the year. Is that a fair assessment? I'm very high on Hembree is that justified?
So, this is a two-part question. One part of it concerns Heath Hembree’s usage and whether or not we’re seeing a repeat of Junichi Tazawa. The other is simply asking how good Hembree is. I’ll start with the first part, because it is a really interesting question.
If you’ve followed my writing for the last few years, surely you remember how much I enjoyed Tazawa. He was, in my mind, among the more underrated relievers in all of baseball. The now-Marlin always had an outstanding command of the strike zone and was always second to only Koji Uehara in terms of striking out batters while limiting walks.
Of course, as his Red Sox career went on Tazawa’s performance continued to fall off. By the time the second half of last season rolled around, it was no longer all that exciting to see him on the mound at the end of a game. Part of that is surely just relievers being volatile and seeing drops in performance at the blink of an eye. That doesn’t explain everything, though.
As Ammon’s question alludes to, Tazawa was used a ton during his time with the Red Sox. In his first two full seasons, he appeared in 71 games each year. Over that span, he appeared in more games than all but 15 relievers in the league despite being among the smaller relievers in the game. Farrell leaned heavily on his bullpen weapon, which was obviously understandable given the talent. It burned him in the long-run, though
Things were particularly egregious in terms of pitching on back-to-back days. When you’re a high-leverage arm, particularly for a contending team, pitching on back-to-back days is part of the job. With that being said, a manager wants to limit that as much as possible. In 2013, Tazawa threw on back-to-back days 11 times. The following year, that number rose to 19 including a couple of back-to-back-to-back outings. Again, I don’t think you can completely kill Farrell for this because it’s not as if the Red Sox had the deepest bullpen — it was basically just Tazawa, Uehara and Burke Badenhop after Andrew Miller was dealt that summer. Whether it was justified usage or not, , it clearly had adverse effects on him as his Red Sox career came to a close.
Hembree, meanwhile, has been leaned on fairly heavily early on in 2017. Thus far, his 11 appearances leads the Red Sox and his 12 1⁄3 innings is tied with Joe Kelly for the team lead. He’s also been called upon for three back-to-backs this year which works out to a pace of 22 over a full season. Of course, it’s not really fair to take this small sample and extrapolate it over a few season.
Hembree’s case is different from Tazawa’s for a few reasons. For one, the bullpen should theoretically get better as the year goes on. Matt Barnes will be back soon and Ben Taylor is back, giving them more right-handed talent to lean on. Later, Tyler Thornburg will (hopefully) make his Red Sox debut and Carson Smith will be ready for the second half. If they are lucky enough to have everyone healthy at the same time, Farrell won’t have to lean so heavily on one arm — in this case, Hembree — because he’ll have enough other weapons. I’m not a fan of Hembree being used as the de facto long relief specialist right now, but not because it’ll tire him out. It’s just not the best use of resources. Hembree should be able to be used a little less than Tazawa, and that combined with the fact that Hembree is simply a bigger human will make him more likely to avoid the same ill-effects Tazawa experiences in the past.
As far as being high on Hembree, I think that is justified, although it depends on just how high on the righty you are. I believe he’s a talented arm and has a spot in a contending bullpen, but I wouldn’t expect him to be one of the top two arms in a playoff ‘pen.
He could challenge that assertion if he keeps throwing the way he has this year, though. It’s still a small sample so obviously this should be taken with a grain of salt, but Hembree has been better in every way early on this season. He’s striking out a few more batters, going over a batter per inning for the first time in his career. At the same time, he’s walking fewer than three batters per nine innings. Most impressively, though, has been his ability to keep the ball on the ground. Always a flyball-heavy pitcher, Hembree has induced grounders on over half of his balls in play.
The good news is there is a clear change in his strategy that is leading to this overall change in profile. After leaning heavily on his fastball early in his career, he’s backing off that pitch right now and throwing it just under half the time after using it over 60 percent of the time last year. To make up for it, he’s also cut his curveball out of the repertoire and is leaning on his slider 47 percent of the time. It has worked thus far, as the breaking ball is inducing a 50 percent ground ball rate and a 14 percent whiff rate.
It’s too early to say that Hembree can stay this good, as the league will eventually adjust to this new strategy. With that being said, I’ve seen enough from him this year and previously to say he’s at least a viable major-league reliever. If he can keep up his current performance, he’ll be a lot more than that.