Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Heath Hembree.
2019 in one sentence
Heath Hembree was, well, very Heath Hembree-like in that he showed occasional flashes of being solid but never really emerged as a true trustworthy late-inning arm.
I said just above that Hembree never really emerged as a true trustoworthy late-inning arm, but in a vacuum that’s not entirely true. I think it was always clear that the production wasn’t going to stay — we’ve seen enough Heath Hembree at this point to know the deal here — but the righty was pitching well for a stretch in the first half. After struggling to keep runs off the board in April, Hembree flipped a switch and went through a five-week, 18-appearance stretch of good looks from the ‘pen. In that span he pitched to a 0.59 ERA with 22 strikeouts and five walks over 18 1⁄3 innings. Perhaps most impressively given his history, he allowed only one homer in that stretch. The run would end with an injury rather than a downturn in performance, but before he hit the injured list Hembree was earning set-up man looks, particularly with runners on base.
Speaking of which, the righty was weirdly better with runners on base compared to when the bases were empty. That’s not to necessarily say you’d expect him to be worse, but rather that he’s never really been the kind of guy you think of to come in and clean up busy situations. Generally that is left either to good ground ball pitchers (Hembree is an extreme fly ball pitcher) or someone who strikes out batters at an elite rate without walking too many (Hembree walks a lot of guys with a solid but unspectacular strikeout rate). We’re dealing in small samples here, but you can’t take away the results and Hembree allowed a .273 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) with runners on a base and a .254 wOBA with runners in scoring position. When the bases were empty, the wOBA was .363.
Of course, as you can tell simply from these numbers, a lot of those runners that were on base in the first place were there because of him. That wasn’t entirely the case, though. Hembree did finish in the top quarter of the league in terms of inherited runner scoring rate among the 248 who inherited at least ten runners. He allowed just five of 24 inherited runners to score.
Just as we talked about with Nathan Eovaldi yesterday, Hembree excelled with his fastball as well. Like so many relievers in today’s game, the righty pairs a big fastball with a breaking ball, though Hembree does have a couple of different breaking balls between which he alternates. The fastball was even more emphasized in 2019 than before — for not great reasons we’ll get to later — and he had plenty of success with the offering. As he effectively got it at the top of and above the zone more often than he had in the past, he induced more weak contact and parlayed that into a .279 expected wOBA and a .277 actual wOBA.
So, yeah. Heath Hembree had some moments and attributes that made it not totally unreasonable to believe he might be a real contributor to a legitimate major-league bullpen. In typical Heath Hembree fashion, though, he finished with a fine 3.86 ERA with a less fine 4.81 FIP and an even less fine 6.54 DRA.
It started with his batted ball profile. I mentioned above that the 30-year-old is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but he took things to a new level in 2019. This past year, according to Baseball Prospectus, opponents put the ball on the ground against Hembree just 24 percent of the time. There were 499 pitchers who threw at least 25 innings in 2019. Only three induced grounders at a lower rate than Hembree.
Granted, it is certainly possible to succeed as a fly ball pitcher in this league, even if this particular rate was extreme. In fact, the Red Sox have seemingly built much of their staff around pitchers who put the ball in the air, presumably because the strength of their defense lies in the outfield. Plus, even with shifting it is harder to get a single on a standard fly ball than it is on a ground ball.
That said, we all saw what happened in 2019. The ball was absurd and home runs flew out of the park. So, unsurprisingly given how many balls in the air he allowed, Hembree gave up a bunch of home runs. Specifically, he allowed 1.6 for every nine innings he threw, putting him in the top (or bottom, depending on how you want to look at it) third in the league. That’s not great for a guy who was emerging as a guy who could be trusted with runners on base, and speaks to the instability of that potential role moving forward.
The fly balls and home runs were the big reason his DRA (and FIP) were so poor, but they were also just a symptom of the big issue with Hembree this year: His inability to find a secondary offering. As mentioned above, Hembree had a great fastball in 2019 and generally has two breaking balls to go along with it. However, neither his slider nor his curveball were very effective. His slider in particular was disappointing. This was a pitch he threw a full third of the time in 2018 and had some success with it.
In 2019, however, he got a bunch of whiffs with but that wasn’t enough. He had less movement on the pitch than ever before, failed to get swings on pitches out of the zone and was pounded to the tune of a .413 expected wOBA and a somehow-worse .442 actual wOBA. As a result, he just started to ditch it. Hembree finished the year with a 16 percent usage on the pitch. It doesn’t matter how good your fastball is if you have nothing to pair it with.
Along with those two major issues, there are two things that have often held Hembree back from taking that next step, something that appears to just be out of reach at this point. For one thing, he is borderline unusable against left-handed hitters. This is not ideal for any reliever at any point in time, but it’s even more of an issue now with the new rule expected to be passed for the 2020 season that would ensure pitchers must face at least three batters in a game. In 2019, Hembree allowed a .347 wOBA against lefties compared to a .304 mark against righties. He also struggled mightily with control, walking 10.4 percent of his opponents. This was the second straight year he finished with that exact rate.
The Big Question
Can Heath Hembree finally keep the ball in the yard?
I’m gonna go with no.
Hembree is arbitration-eligible this winter and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $1.6 million. That is not a lot of money, even for a team like the Red Sox who are for some reason looking to cut payroll. That said, he is still a non-tender candidate less because of the money and more because that roster spot can simply be more efficiently used. On the one hand, there is always use for a middle relief arm like Hembree who can pitch up to a seventh inning role at times, especially with rosters expanding to 26 in 2020. That said, there is also very little upside with him at this point. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Hembree is back, but if you asked me right now I expect he’ll be on another team in 2020, likely on a cheap one-year deal.