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One Big Question: Will Heath Hembree ever make “The Leap”?

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Is he ever going to be more than a fringy reliever?

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Heath Hembree.

The Question: Will Heath Hembree ever make “The Leap”?

Maybe it’s just me, but it always seems as if Heath Hembree is younger than he actually is. The righty still seems like a player with plenty of room for growth and one who has a little more time to prove himself before we can definitively call him what he is. Ultimately, we are still trying to figure out his role, and generally speaking players without roles are either bad or young. Hembree isn’t all that young anymore, though, despite whatever your perception may be. Instead, he’s about to start his age-29 season and he no longer has minor-league options to play around with. In other words, now is the time for the righty to declare who he is as a pitcher in the majors. He’s shown flashes at times over his roughly two and a half seasons in the bigs, but there’s never been enough consistency to hand your hat on. Essentially, we’re still waiting on him to make the mystical Leap, but it’s unclear if it will never happen.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Let’s look over what Hembree has done ever since he came to Boston midway through the 2014 season in a trade that send Jake Peavy to San Francisco. In 2015, he pitched in 22 games and posted a solid 3.55 ERA but did so with truly horrendous peripherals that included fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings and a 5.55 FIP. The following year he’d make 38 appearances, and many of them lasted more than an inning giving him a total workload of 51 innings. That 2016 season was much more encouraging with a 2.65 ERA and a 3.79 FIP. Finally, last year was his fullest workload with the team as he made 62 appearances and tossed 62 innings, finishing the year with a 3.63 ERA and 3.89 FIP. Ultimately, his run prevention has been fine over his career, but we know that’s not the best measure of talent for relievers. He’s struggled with his peripherals, and consistently with his walks and home runs.

That’s not to say there is nothing good about Heath Hembree. As I mentioned at the top, there have been moments in which some of us (well, at least me. I won’t speak for you) have been won over by the righty. In 2017 in particular, Hembree was tremendous at missing bats. He finished the year with nearly 11 strikeouts per nine, and with his command issue and the strikeout rates around the league, this is where he needs to live to have any chance at success in the majors. His fastball can get into the high 90’s at times, and he doesn’t seem like someone who is affected by high-pressure situations. It’s easy to forget now, but early on in 2017 it seemed as if Hembree had already taken that leap. Over his first 14 appearances and 15 23 innings, he allowed just two earned runs (1.15 ERA) with 18 strikeouts and five walks. Perhaps even more important was that there just wasn’t a lot of hard, damaging contact at this point in the year as his opponents only managed a line of .226/.279/.242 in that span.

Unfortunately, things took a turn after that point. From that day forward, Hembree started giving up a ton of hard contact and opponents put up a .310/.356/.540 line while he pitched to a 4.47 ERA. Hard contact has been the biggest issue for Hembree over his career. While he’s suffered through some lapses in control, ultimately it’s hitters feasting on him and smacking home runs and doubles all over the place that does him in. Even in 2017, when he allowed more ground balls than ever before, balls just continued to leave the yard. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, Hembree is in the bottom ten percent of the league over the last two years in terms of the rate at which he’s allowed hard contact and the bottom twelve percent in terms of the rate at which he’s induced soft contact. That is not ideal for a reliever, of course.

The key for Hembree moving forward, of course, is figuring out how to fix this issue. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I can give a surefire answer to this question. If I could, I’d be coaching somewhere. I will say that the issues seem to come down to his fastball. He throws that pitch over the half the time, and while his slider allows some hard contact as well it also induces plenty of whiffs and ground balls. His fastball, meanwhile, hits high velocities but is easy for hitters to mash. He works the offering up in the zone (as you can see here) and major-league hitters just aren’t going to be overwhelmed by this velocity. Hembree needs to A) find a way to mix in his slider more, B) find a way to get his fastball out of the middle horizontal portion of the zone, and/or C) find a way to get more movement on the fastball, even if it results in a slightly lower velocity.

The upcoming year is a big one for Hembree as he seeks to prove he is a viable major-league reliever. He is going to get his chance at the start of the year, but he’s been inconsistent for long enough and there is enough depth in the system that the team can justify moving on if it doesn’t work out. The talent is there for him to be at least a serviceable middle reliever with potential for a little more. If he’s going to make that metaphorical leap, though, he’ll need to find a way to stop giving up so much hard contact, and that’s going to be easier said than done.