Red Sox Prediction: Heath Hembree, bullpen savior
He’s not likely to close out the ninth inning for the Boston Red Sox, but let’s take a moment to appreciate what Heath Hembree brings to the table.
It’s the top of the second, one out. The Boston Red Sox are down 6-0 early, and John Farrell has seen enough. He goes out the mound, motions to the bullpen with his right arm, and out from the right field bullpen trots Heath Hembree, ready to go multiple innings. How many times do you remember this exact scene play out in the early months of 2016?
It’s not a glamorous role, but it’s a vital one. People say a loss is just a loss, but sometimes one game has a major effect on the next several. Managing the bullpen in a blowout loss has that carryover effect; a tired bullpen hurts the team for the next stretch of games. Having a guy like Hembree in the bullpen keeps the effect of one loss at one loss.
Most long relievers aren’t particularly effective – their key characteristics are stamina and resilience. They have to be able to throw two to five innings at the whim of the manager’s call, regardless of how effective they’re throwing on that particular day. Give up two runs in the first inning? Tough luck, because you’re slated for another three innings anyway.
Hembree, however, is a cut above the average long reliever. He has shown the ability to go three or four innings at a moment’s notice, and he can do it well. Over 51 innings in 2016, Hembree registered a 2.65 ERA, striking out 47. These are numbers that are typically found among most seventh or eighth inning relievers, not a pitcher with the same role as the likes of Brett Oberholtzer.
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Most importantly, Hembree has proven to be effective in low-pressure situations. This may sound weird – after all, aren’t high-pressure situations more difficult to pitch in? Yes, there’s definitely a certain difficulty to pitch in intense circumstances. But consider the other side of the coin.
Relievers are trained throughout their entire careers to pitch in high-leverage spots. They feed off the pressure; they need the roaring crowd and the shining lights and the tight scoreboard to perform at their best. But what about when the crowd is mulling about, when the lights are dim, when the scoreboard is crooked? It takes a certain internal driving force in order to perform at maximum levels in these moments.
In situations described as low-leverage, Hembree threw 29 of his 51 total innings. He held batters to a .230/.293/.357 slash line.
When the Red Sox are down big, the team needs two things from the next guy out of the bullpen: innings first, effectiveness second. Most teams can dip down into their AAA farm and find that 34-year old swingman who never could quite crack the MLB rotation and get those innings. But only a handful of teams can say they have a 28-year old with the mentality of a long reliever and the pedigree of a late-inning reliever.
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He’s not Craig Kimbrel, or Tyler Thornburg, or Carson Smith, or Matt Barnes. But Heath Hembree will play the role of the savior of the bullpen.