Welcome to BP Boston’s second annual Roster Recap series. Over the next few months, we’ll be analyzing every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. From MVP-candidate right fielders to reserve relievers, we want to give you a look at every Red Sox who might matter in 2017. View the complete list of Roster Recaps here. Enjoy!
Coming off a rough showing in the major leagues in 2015 and an uneven 2016 Spring Training, Heath Hembree did not make the Red Sox Opening Day roster. At that point, and despite his once being projected as a future closer, it was simply not at all clear what value he could provide at the big league level. Fortunately, he did not have to wait long to get an opportunity to demonstrate it. He was called to Boston at the end of April, pitched well enough over the course of the season to earn John Farrell’s trust, and, with the exception of a couple of return stints in Pawtucket, was a supporting member of the Red Sox’s bullpen last year.
For the coming season, there is little doubt that he will open the season with Boston. This is not necessarily because he is clearly one of the seven best options the Red Sox have for their bullpen, so much as it is because he is a pretty good middle reliever – which is a needed role – who is out of options. If Hembree were to be placed on waivers (in an effort to get him to Pawtucket) he would certainly be nabbed by another organization. As such, the Red Sox are somewhat forced to give him another go in their bullpen and hope he proves useful. If he pitches poorly (or someone else in Pawtucket is pitching better) then the risk of losing him through the waiver process becomes easier to accept. The looming presence of these roster transactions means that regardless of the game situation, Hembree will be pitching under difficult circumstances.
What Went Right in 2016
A lot, actually. Statistically he improved in almost every category relative to his ugly 2015 showing. He doubled his innings, all the while increasing his strikeout rate, decreasing his walk rate, decreasing his home run rate, increasing his groundball rate, and on and on. And yet, while those personal improvements across the board were great, by DRA he was still a below average pitcher, just not as below average as he was in 2015. Small victories, folks.
Hembree pitching better, and at a mostly tolerable level, allowed Farrell to use him in a wide-ranging role. Role is probably the wrong word, as he did not really have a defined role, other than the absence of one. He entered games pretty much any time after the third inning – of his 51.0 innings, 17.2 came in innings 4-6, 24.2 came in innings 7-9 – and would often get more than an inning of work. In fact, half of his appearances involved him getting at least four outs. Just over half of his innings (27.2) came when the team was behind, and a little under a third came when they were ahead (15.1); a pattern which nearly matches the breakdown of his innings by leverage: mostly low, some medium, fewer high. Ok. I think you get the picture. Hembree was used at any point in any game. His ability to be used this way undoubtedly saved Farrell from pushing his starter a batter or two too many, and/or using other (read: more important) bullpen arms. All told, Hembree’s flexibility likely had a positive knock-on effect on the rest of the pitching staff, contributing indirectly to their effectiveness.
What Went Wrong in 2016
As much as Hembree was better than he was in 2015 and provided great flexibility to the team, as noted, he was still a below average pitcher. The 2.65 ERA looks nice, but his FIP was more than a run worse (3.79), and his 4.97 DRA and 109 cFIP also undermine the likelihood that his ERA will hold at a sub-3.00-level going forward.
Hembree’s standout issue in 2016 was opposing left-handed hitters. While he held righties to a .200/.255/.336 line, righties beat him up for a .338/.397/.493 line. That is a 299-point difference in OPS. Comically bad. Now, it should be mentioned that there was a large discrepancy in his BABIP against between lefties and righties, but there was also a large discrepancy in hard hit rate, so we shouldn’t just dismiss the ridiculously large platoon split as being a result of BABIP. Lefties hit the ball hard more often than righties did, and that will tend to turn into good things (for the batter). I dug around Hembree’s Brooks Baseball page to try and find an explanation for his dramatic split, but there wasn’t any particular aspect of his repertoire that was specifically worse against left-handed hitters. It was basically all worse against lefties. They slugged his fastball and slider (his most frequently thrown pitches) more than did righties, while his curveball came out even (at an ugly .500 SLG-against).
Before overreacting too much to this split, the small sample siren should blare, as Hembree only faced 78 left-handed batters last year. That is not enough to know if he is actually unable to get lefties out. He may always have trouble, but it seems unlikely that this .299 OPS split is going to be typical for him. Rather, I expect it to regress back to a league-averagish level. Of course if it does not, this sort of pronounced difficulty with left-handed opponents will really limit his ability to maintain a role as a multi-inning, flexible relief option. He managed it (mostly) for a season, but if it turns out that lefties just crush him, he should not be left in games to face lefties, especially in medium-to-high leverage moments. This really undoes the value he appears to present.
Outlook for 2017
It is pretty simple: if Hembree pitches well — might even need to bump that to really well — he will stay in Boston and do the things he did for them in 2016. If not, he will be packing up his things and heading to start life with his third organization. I suppose he could end up back in Pawtucket, but it seems much more likely that somebody will claim him off waivers and give him a shot in their bullpen. Of course even that simple outlook changes once Carson Smith is ready to come back, or some other pitcher (e.g., Brian Johnson, Noe Ramirez, Chandler Shepherd, Kyle Kendrick) pitches well enough to take Hembree’s spot. Life as a fringy-middle-reliever can be cruel.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images