Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! We continue to break down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of the top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
Once upon a time, Heath Hembree was The Closer Of The Future™ for the San Francisco Giants. It’s a title that many relief prospects have held (Craig Hansen says hello), and many will hold in the future, but for a brief point in time Hembree was one of *the* hot young reliever in baseball. Then, along with Edwin Escobar, he was traded to Boston in the deal that sent Jake Peavy to the Giants midway through the 2014 disaster of a season. He spent most of that first season in the organization with Pawtucket, but did make a few token appearances at the end of the year. They…they didn’t go so well.
What Went Right in 2015
Unsurprisingly, Hembree found himself in Pawtucket for a good chunk of the 2015 season. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity, either, considering the dumpster fire of a bullpen the Red Sox employed for the whole season. With that being said, he did have a little bit of success at Triple-A. While he didn’t blow anyone away, he did finish the year by striking out an International League opponent per inning to go with a sub-3.00 ERA and FIP. Most importantly, he only gave up one home run in 32.2 innings. We’ll look at how good that is for him shortly.
While he did spend that time in Pawtucket, he also got more of a chance in the majors than he did the year before, getting to appear in 22 major-league games and throwing 25.1 innings. The performance was not really good, but we’re in the positives section of this program so let’s find some. Um. Uh. His ERA was 3.55, which comes in above-average. Let’s not talk about how reliable ERA is in this sample though, alright? He was also super adept at hitting the strike zone, finishing the year with the 47th best zone rate among the 524 pitchers who tossed at least 300 pitches. So, yay!
What Went Wrong in 2015
Once Hembree left the friendly confines of the International League, things went most poorly for the inexperienced arm. Although he had a relatively shiny ERA, no other metrics backed that up. He finished with a 5.55 FIP, a 4.77 DRA and a 113 cFIP. Gross. One of the biggest reasons Hembree struggled was the long ball, of which he allowed five in just 25 innings, or 1.8 per nine innings. Just 34 of the 513 pitchers with at least 20 innings finished with a higher rate. This is likely always going to be a problem for him (albeit hopefully not as big of a problem) considering his inability to induce ground balls. Among that same group of 513 pitchers, only 11 had a lower ground ball rate than Hembree’s 30 percent mark.
The good news is there are some good names ahead of him on that list, including one Koji Uehara, but there’s a big piece missing in Hembree’s game right now. He just can’t translate his strikeout stuff to the highest level. After blowing opponents away through his minor-league career, he managed just 5.3 K/9 in 2015. His swinging-strike rate is certainly lower than average, though it’s high enough that one could envision a slight uptick in his strikeout totals. However, major-league hitters just aren’t at all fooled by his pitches out of the zone, as just 13 pitchers of the 524 with at least 300 pitches induced a lower chase rate. Until he can fool opponents, he’s going to be organizational depth.
Outlook for 2016
If everything goes according to plan for the Red Sox this year, Hembree will once again spend the majority of the year in Triple-A. Boston has added a tremendous amount of depth to their bullpen, particularly from the right side. With that being said, injuries will happen, and Hembree will likely start the year towards the top of that depth chart with Matt Barnes. Unfortunately for him, reliever depth can change quickly, so he’ll need to prove his worth early and often. He has Pat Light and Williams Jerez breathing down his neck, and Anthony Varvaro and Brandon Workman serving as X-Factors coming off of injuries. Once one of the hot young relievers in the game, Hembree will need to remember to pack his strikeout stuff on his next bus ride up to Boston if he wants to build a major-league career.
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