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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Heath Hembree.
The Year in a Sentence
Heath Hembree once again flirted with taking a big step forward in the bullpen before hitting a wall and sticking it out as a useful, but ultimately not difference-making, reliever.
Most of the attitude around Hembree from Red Sox fans at this point is negative, and that’s getting harder and harder to fight as time goes on. I still don’t think he’s as bad as most think, but I’ve come down. That being said, this certainly was not a year without positives for the right-handed reliever. The biggest development for the former Giants prospect was the continued uptick in his strikeout rate. Part of this is certainly that the league as a whole is simply striking out more often than ever, but Hembree still deserves credit here. He set a new career-high in strikeout rate when he set down 11.4 per nine innings. All three of his offerings resulted in whiffs more than 12 percent of the time he threw them, and according to Baseball Prospectus he set another new career-high inducing whiffs on 32 percent of swings. Strikeouts are not everything, and plenty of pitchers can come in and set down hitters these days, but being able to do so as well as Hembree did last year is still a valuable commodity in any era.
The peak of Hembree’s season came early in the year, which is part of the reason so many are down on him. If he put up the exact same numbers but flipped his half-seasons around, the feelings about him would certainly be better. Of course, order does matter and struggling as the weather warms, hitters get into grooves and games become more important is not nothing. That aside, Hembree was very good for much of the first half and he looked like a legitimate set-up guy for a lot of that run. He held opponents to a .703 OPS before the All-Star break, and kept his home run rate at a somewhat respectable level even if it still wasn’t great. June in particular was a great month for Hembree as he allowed just one hit (a home run) over 12 appearances.
Perhaps the most surprising positive for Hembree on the year was how he performed against left-handed hitting. The righty has typically displayed major platoon splits over his career, and one of the biggest criticisms of him earlier in his Red Sox career was that he couldn’t be a true late-inning arm because lefties crushed him. This year, he posted extreme reverse splits and lefties posted an OPS of just .551 against the righty. Granted, a lot of that had to do with a .246 batting average on balls in play, and I certainly wouldn’t bet on these kind of splits moving forward. Still, the results are the results, and they were good.
Finally, Hembree once again showed off good durability, and that’s an impressive feat for power pitchers these days. This was the second consecutive year in which Hembree appeared in 60 games at the major-league level, and the third straight year in which he tossed at least 50 innings. One could argue that durability from a bad pitcher isn’t a positive, but I don’t think I’d agree that Hembree’s value is so low that his durability isn’t something to be lauded.
For all of the good in Hembree’s year, the bad started to outweigh the good by the end, and we were left with a bad taste in our mouths. Ultimately, the biggest killer for the Red Sox righty this year was his issues with command. The biggest command issue for Hembree is on pitches in the zone, as he misses his spots in opportune locations far too often. He’s a flyball pitcher as it is, so when he misses up in the zone the ball typically goes a long way. For the second consecutive season he allowed ten home runs on the year, coming out to 1.5 homers per nine innings. He has never allowed fewer than one homer per nine innings in a season with at least ten appearances.
In the past, Hembree has been able to work around these home run issues (well, to an extent anyways) because he showed off solid control. He’s not exactly Nathan Eovaldi or Ryan Brasier out there, but he sat between 2.5-3.0 walks per nine innings previously in his career. In 2018, though, the righty watched his walk rate skyrocket up to four per nine innings. Home runs are always an issue, of course, but they become even worse when you’re allowing a free baserunner ahead of them. In 2017, Hembree started missing the zone much more than ever before, but it didn’t hurt him because he was inducing a lot of chases. This past year, it seems the league adjusted, laid off those bad pitches and it came back to bite him.
Then, there’s the performance against right-handed hitters. I mentioned his surprising dominance against lefties this year, and that would have been even better if he also looked good against righties. Instead, same-handed hitters crushed Hembree this year. It was weird, and a bit disheartening given all of the talented right-handed bats at the top of the American League. In 155 plate appearances, he hit .262/.323/.525, with power being the biggest issue. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was actually a lot better against righties, but six percent of his opponents hit home runs, which is not great.
The Big Question
As I’ve alluded to, for a while now I’ve been something of the high guy on Hembree. The stuff is just so intriguing and the flashes are just long enough that it’s been hard for me to totally lose faith. At this point, though, after he ended up with a 4.20 ERA and a FIP to match (DRA is still much higher on him, for what that’s worth) I’ve joined the other side of the fence. I still think he has the talent to make “The Leap” and wouldn’t be totally shocked if he did, but I’d bet against it at this point. He sort of is what he is at this point, and while that’s certainly good enough for a major-league role it’s not someone to be overly excited about.
The Year Ahead
Hembree is arbitration-eligible this winter, and I think he might be a sneaky non-tender candidate at the end of the month. Ultimately, he’ll make little enough (MLB Trade Rumors projects him for $1.2 million) that the Red Sox will keep him around, but it’s possible. Assuming he is still with the organization in spring training, March will be spent fighting for a roster spot. Being out of options gives him an advantage as the team always errs towards hoarding depth, but Hembree is about to turn 30 and hasn’t taken the aforementioned leap yet. If someone like Travis Lakins or even Durbin Feltman really stands out in spring training, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Hembree on the outside looking in. Hembree will play somewhere, though, and he’ll ultimately settle in as something like the fifth arm in a bullpen, at times looking much better than that and at times looking much worse.