Continuing the Postseason Grades series, let’s talk about Heath Hembree. Hembree also gets a grade of Incomplete – throwing only 7.2 innings in the majors will do that – but I wanted to spin him off into his own post because he should be a major part of the bullpen next year and for years to come.
Hembree was drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 draft out of College of Charleston, and since then has been perhaps the best relief prospect in the Giants system, ranking #3 in Baseball America’s top 10 Giants prospects list before the 2012 season and #7 on the same list before the 2013 season. He was invited to spring training this March and was expected to compete for a spot in the bullpen, but he wasn’t as good as advertised in Arizona and so was sent to Fresno to start the year. At the beginning of the year, lowered velocity and a poor slider led to a tough first couple months in AAA. On July 1st, he found himself with a 5.08 ERA and 16 saves in 33.2 IP.
That’s when Hembree turned it all around. He regained some of that lost velocity and worked hard to improve his slider, and from July 1st until his call-up he had a 2.45 ERA in 22.0 IP with 15 saves, breaking the Fresno Grizzlies team saves record along the way. On other thing that changed in that time period – his luck. From the beginning of the season to July 1st, his BABIP was .340. From July 1st onward, it was .273.
Hembree repertoire includes a four-seam fastball that sits 92-94 mph and touches 95 with good arm-side run, which is to say the ball tails inward to a right-handed batter. He also throws the aforementioned mid-80s slider as well as a mid-80s changeup. The effectiveness of that slider-changeup combination will dictate how successful Hembree can be against lefties and righties. For example, George Kontos throws primarily just a fastball and a slider, and while Kontos is effective against righties he has struggled against lefties without an effective changeup. So while Hembree’s development of an effective slider is important and encouraging, he’ll need to use his changeup as well in order to be a true shutdown reliever and not a specialist.
In the past, Hembree was marketing as a “future closer” type, once groomed to take over for Brian Wilson, now the same for Sergio Romo. With the struggles of the Giants bullpen this year – Sergio Romo is the only pitcher I would call truly solid, and your mileage on Santiago Casilla may vary – Hembree could find himself in a high-leverage role pretty early next season. I expect him to start out in a 6th/7th inning role next year, but don’t be surprised to see him shutting down the eighth inning before long.