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Heath Hembree is better than you think

He’s not someone you build a bullpen around, but he’s solid.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox bullpen has been a topic of conversation of late, even more so than the Red Sox bullpen is always a topic of conversation. For one thing, they haven’t exactly been getting the job done night-in and night-out of late. It doesn’t seem like any one pitcher is struggling every time he takes the mound, but rather that one guy struggles in a big spot in just about every game. Of course, that’s not really happening, but it’s not as far off as we like. As such, people are not happy with the construction of this group. I don’t think it’s an unfair assertion, to be fair, but it’s worth noting the old adage that every baseball fan thinks his/her favorite team’s bullpen, manager and third base coach are among the worst in the league.

The focus on this area has only become more intense in recent days as a roster crunch begins to set it. It began with Steven Wright returning on Monday, a move that pushed Hector Velazquez to the disabled list for at least ten days. We’ll see what happens when those ten days are up, which should also be around the time the team may expect a return to the roster from Tyler Thornburg, which would obviously force another arm out of the bullpen. After the Carson Smith injury, that question became a little easier, but the feelings before that injury are still telling with a lot of focus falling on Heath Hembree of late. There’s pretty much always been some level of frustration around the righty, but I’m here to say he’s better than you think.

For starters, I should say that I understand the frustration around Hembree, and it comes from a few different levels. First of all, he hasn’t really been great at preventing runs, which seems like a skill pitchers should have! He’s pitched to a 5.12 ERA this year, and while ERA is not the best stat by which to judge relievers, that’s a sign that he’s had some rough times on the mound. Of course, his previous two ERA’s were 3.63 and 2.65, so it hasn’t always been untenably bad. There’s also the fact that his first two years with the Red Sox weren’t all that impressive by any metric you choose to look at, and whether we try to fight it or not first impressions have an effect on all of us. Any time Hembree struggles, it’s natural to revert back to what you thought of him a few years ago.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

This is where things start to become unfair towards the righty, however. He’s steadily improved with every passing season, and while he still is prone to hard contact from time to time — again, not a great attribute for a reliever! — the advanced numbers should a different Hembree than something like ERA would. Baseball Prospectus has numbers called DRA and cFIP, which are all-encompassing metrics that measure overall performance based a litany of factors even including things like umpire, weather and catcher. The former is a descriptive number a la ERA, and cFIP is predictive a la FIP. Over the last two seasons, Hembree has posted DRA’s that were 30 percent and 45 percent better than the league-average pitcher. He has posted cFIPs that were 19 percent and 16 percent better than the league-average pitcher. For context, so far this year he has been very similar to other AL East relievers like Chad Green, David Robertson and Alex Colomé in terms of DRA/cFIP combination. Even if you’d prefer to stick with regular ol’ FIP, he’s been much better than his 5+ ERA would indicate.

Whether or not you buy into those advanced metrics is totally up to you, and I think it’s entirely fair to say that those numbers cast a new light on Hembree while also acknowledging that he’s probably not in that Green/Robertson/Colomé tier. That said, there are a couple of key improvements that Hembree has steadily been making as a major leaguer. For one thing, he’s made significant improvements in his ground ball rate each of the last few years, culminating in his current 53 percent rate, and 11-point increase from last year. As someone who gives up hard contact more often than you’d like, it’s important for him to keep the ball on the ground to prevent home runs. Seems pretty intuitive, yeah? As it turns out, he’s allowed fewer than one homer per nine innings for the first time in his career, though at 0.9 per nine that could change pretty quickly.

In addition to the grounders, Hembree is also missing bats more effectively the last couple of years. As a former flyball pitcher who allowed some loud contact, it was always frustrating that he couldn’t really post elite strikeout rates. Over the last two seasons, Hembree is striking out more than ten batters per nine innings. That’s probably not quite elite in today’s game, but it’ll certainly do, and the way he’s getting it done is interesting. Hembree had always been a pitcher who pounded the zone, but over the last two years he’s dramatically dropped his zone rate from around 52-53 percent to around 46 percent. He’s also inducing more swings on pitches out the zone, and unsurprising consequence of a lower reliance on the fastball and increased usage of the slider. All of this has combined to get him a career-high swinging strike rate that currently puts him in the top 15 percent of the league. That’s all very good!

Ultimately, I am not here to tell you that Hembree deserves to be the eighth inning man or anything like that. He still struggles against lefties — though I’m not super confident in Matt Barnes or Carson Smith against lefties either — and he allows that hard contact. That said, I don’t think he gets enough credit for the strides he’s made and the value he provides, without saying anything about the fact that he can and will go multiple innings when it’s called for. The Red Sox’ roster crunch is done for now with Smith’s injury, but there could still be another decision to make if they decide that Hector Velazquez belongs on the major-league roster. If they do feel that way, Hembree shouldn’t be the one to lose his spot.