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One Big Question: Can Heath Hembree command his pitches?

It was rough last year.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Heath Hembree.

The Question: Can Heath Hembree find some command?

At some point not all that long ago — probably as early as last May — I think I was among the high guys on Heath Hembree. If we fast-forward to now, I don’t know if I’m among the low guys at this point but I certainly empathize with those who are at that point on the spectrum. Hembree has officially entered the “We have to accept he is who he is” zone, as he’s now been around for five years and just turned 31. Stranger things have happened than a potential breakout for someone like him, but the odds are certainly against that. What makes Hembree particularly frustrating is that he looks the part of a guy who should be better. He has the velocity, he has had the breaking ball at times, he has the demeanor on the mound. Hell, he came up through the Giants system as a potential Future Closer. The numbers just haven’t been there.

Speaking of the numbers, if we look just at least year, which was cut short by injury, the results actually don’t look too bad! Hembree finished 2019 with only 39 23 innings, but pitched to a solid 3.86 ERA, which was significantly better than league-average. Unfortunately, the peripherals told a much different story as he finished with a FIP of 4.81 and a DRA of 6.54, both of which were worse than league average. Both of those numbers were also his worst since his first significant major-league time back in 2015. Just going on the experience of watching Hembree, I think it’s fair to say that for most people these peripherals better match up than the ERA.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Talking about peripherals will naturally get one to think about strikeouts and walks, and while that was part of it that’s not the whole story. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even the biggest part of the story. Hembree has always gotten whiffs at a good rate and for spurts is elite in that area. Last year he took a bit of a step back, but he still struck out over ten per nine. That’s solid. In terms of walks he’s taken a big step back the last two years, finishing each of those seasons with just over four per nine innings. Thn at’s certainly not what you want, but relievers can get away with that if they are good in other areas. It’s the hard contact that really stands out when watching him, though.

That paragraph really kind of encapsulates the Hembree experience better than anything else, though. The fact is that there really hasn’t been one standout issue that is holding him back, but it’s been a little from every column. I changed my question here multiple times before settling on a focus with command, which feels like sort of an all-ecompassing issue. That is fitting with what Hembree is as a pitcher.

You can, for example, look at that walk rate. Like I said, pitchers can get away with it, but they have to be really good at everything else. Hembree isn’t, and thus needs that rate to be lower, like in 2017 when he walked fewer than three per nine in what was his best season to date. It wasn’t that he missed the zone more than he had in the past — in fact, according to Baseball Prospectus his zone rate was his highest since 2016 — but rather that he didn’t get many swings on the misses and when he did, opponents made contact. His rate of swings on pitches out of the zone was at its lowest since 2015 while his rate of contact on pitches out of the zone was his highest of any season with more than ten innings pitched. That indicates that the pitches he missed with were either not particularly close or, if they were, they were flat.

For the most part, these misses were coming on his breaking pitches. According to Baseball Savant, both his slider and his curveball had below-average movement and less movement than they had in years past. Furthermore, they were absolutely all over the place. Below you can see where his pitches most often landed in or around the zone. They should not be this spread out.

via Baseball Savant
via Baseball Savant

Then, you have the contact profile. Hembree has always been a fairly significant fly ball pitcher. That has its disadvantages in years like 2019 when the ball is flying all over the league, but generally speaking you can get away with that style to a certain degree. It’s hard to get hits on fly balls that stay in the yard. That said, there’s a limit and Hembree went to a new extreme last year. Per FanGraphs, he had a ground ball rate lower than 22 percent, the second lowest rate in all of baseball among the 457 pitchers with at least 30 innings. Like I said, you can get away with that, as Josh Hader is right behind Hembree on that list, Brad Hand is in the top ten and Liam Hendriks is 26th. Those guys are elite. Unfortunately for Hembree, though, most of the names on there struggled.

The issue is that Hembree was giving up his fly balls on hittable pitches. Look below at where his fastball was landing, with the red areas representing the most common spots on the zone.

via Baseball Savant

That is horrendous. It’s actually amazing that Hembree had an ERA below 4.00 when he was throwing his fastball — a pitch he threw two-thirds of the time — in that location. In fact, looking a little bit deeper it’s probably fair to say he got lucky. His home run to fly ball ratio was actually lower than it had been the previous two years (doubly absurd given the state of the baseball) and his hard-hit rate stayed the same. Instead, he suffered from a lack of soft contact, which isn’t thought about as much but can be just as damaging.

Hembree is almost certainly going to be on the roster as long as he is healthy, and there will be a time this season where he makes his way up to the seventh or eighth inning on the depth chart. I will probably buy in, because I never learn. But at this point, we’ve seen what Hembree is. He can be a good middle reliever, but he needs to command his pitches better than he did last year. The good news is it’s not hard to be better in that regard than 2019. The bad news is we have enough data on the righty that we know the ceiling isn’t as high as we’d like.