The Cincinnati Reds have signed right-handed pitcher Heath Hembree to a minor league deal and extended him an invite to big league spring training, which lasts for another week, just in case you had lost track.

In the 2020 season Heath Hembree pitched 19 innings between time with the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. It was a struggle between the two destinations The righty posted an ERA of 9.00, allowing 26 hits, nine home runs, walking eight batters, and picking up 20 strikeouts in his 19.0 innings.

Following the season he was a free agent and he signed with Cleveland on a minor league deal with a spring invite in early February. He allowed just one earned run in 6.1 innings this spring, but he walked six batters to go along with eight strikeouts. Cleveland released him last week after he failed to make their roster.

Prior to 2020, though, things had gone a lot better for Heath Hembree. From 2013-2019 he pitched in 249 games and threw 255.2 innings with a 3.52 ERA (128 ERA+) for the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants. In that span he walked 96 batters and picked up 272 strikeouts.

So what was it that happened in 2020 that caused his ERA to balloon, and nearly triple from his previous career rate? Well, that’s easy to point to: He allowed 4.3 home runs per 9-innings pitched. Nearly a third of the fly balls he allowed on the season (29%) went over the fence. That’s crazy.

His strikeout rate was down a little bit, 22% compared to a 25% rate in the past for his career. But it really was as simple as his home run rate being through the roof. Why that happened, exactly, is tougher to pinpoint. His velocity didn’t drop off. The pitch usage was a bit different from where it was at in 2019, but not really much different from where it was before that. It’s possible that his control simply wasn’t there and he caught entirely too much of plate. Maybe he was tipping his pitches and guys knew exactly what was coming. It’s tough to really know with that, but whatever it was, guys were teeing off.

So what is it that the Cincinnati Reds see in Heath Hembree? Well, as noted, from 2013-2019 he was quite successful in Major League Baseball. But there’s probably something else at work here, too: Hembree has a high spin fastball, high spin slider, and a high spin curveball. They aren’t making Spincinnati shirts in the organization for no reason – they believe in spinning the baseball at high rates.

In 2020, Heath Hembree has a fastball spin rate that was in the 93rd percentile, a curveball spin rate in the 76th percentile, and while Baseball Savant doesn’t give up spin rate percentiles for sliders his slider has a spin rate in line with his curveball.

Cincinnati certainly targets guys who have a high spin rate. That’s where Heath Hembree stands out the most. There’s not much time left this spring to really get a chance to see him pitch and see what he’s really bringing to the table, and to try and make any changes if needed before the season begins. But on a minor league deal, he could head to the alternate site in Louisville if the team decides he isn’t going to make the 26-man roster and needs to get some more work in. It’s always better to have more options than you need than not enough. Adding Hembree gives the team another option to consider, and he’s one that was pretty good not too long ago.

13 Responses

  1. TheCoastMan

    Yea, I really like taking this flyer. It’s nice to see that the FO is still actively looking to upgrade. I know it’s only spring, but we are giving up a heck of a lot of runs thus far.

    • 2020ball

      yeah I dont see how you can hate this move unless you personally know one of the relievers on the fringe and youre rooting for them to make it based solely on that. Low risk and any reward counts as a win.

  2. Steven Ross

    Anyway you “spin it”, the Reds continue to look for reclamation projects.

  3. Tom Mitsoff

    This further reinforces what I have believed will be a player personnel strategy in 2021 for Cincinnati and perhaps other teams.

    With about a week left in spring training, I don’t believe any starting pitcher has gone five innings yet. Derek Johnson made a comment somewhere earlier in the week about long starting pitching outings won’t be the norm. With 13 pitching spots on the opening day roster, and a bunch of pitchers with options remaining acquired over the off-season, I think we’re going to see a regular shuttle back and forth between Louisville and Cincy, with about 20 pitchers being used before all is said and done.

    Hembree reinforces this idea because he’s not likely to have signed a minor-league deal with an opt-out only a week before the start of the regular season. He won’t have enough time to prove anything in a week. He’ll go down to Louisville and be ready to be on the shuttle.

    • Daytonnati

      Tom – Axios Sports discussed this today:

      “MLB starting pitchers, coming off a mere 60-game campaign, are preparing for an unprecedented year-to-year jump in innings pitched, Axios’ Jeff Tracy writes.

      Why it matters: In order to minimize that increase, teams will need to get creative with their pitching staffs or else risk a rash of injuries.

      By the numbers: After the top 10 leaders in innings pitched averaged well over 200 innings 2011–2019, that number dropped to just 77 last year, leaving 2021 as something of a mystery.
      “It’s gonna be an issue,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told ESPN (subscription). “We’re all gonna have to figure out what’s the best way to keep our guys healthy, and I don’t think there’s one answer for every pitcher.”
      The big picture: Young pitchers and bullpens may ultimately be impacted the most by this year-to-year workload increase, so staff depth should be at an even bigger premium than usual.

      For untested arms, the rule of thumb is a 30–40% IP increase, which would normally mean increasing from ~120 to 162 IP but this year could be more like 60–80. Anything much more than that risks serious long-term issues, so bullpens will have to pick up the slack.
      Relievers have accounted for an increasing number of innings in recent years, jumping from 36.7% of innings in 2016 to 44.5% in 2020 as starters’ leashes got shorter. Add this season’s workload concern to that trend and reaching 50% isn’t out of the question.
      Between the lines: Injuries already skyrocketed last year due to the herky-jerky start, with nearly as many non-COVID-19 IL stints by pitchers in 2020 (197) as in the previous two full seasons combined (235).

      Coming on the heels of that, teams have even more reason to handle their hurlers with care.
      The bottom line: 2020, 1994 and 1981 (all shortened) are the only years in which the league leader in innings pitched failed to top 200. This year is poised to become the first full season to join them.”

      • Tom Mitsoff

        Thanks for sharing that. Excellent info.

      • Doug Gray

        Here’s the problem with that 30-40% thing – it’s based on building the established baseline for the first time ever. It’s not just “what they threw last year”, otherwise guys coming off of TJ would take 3-4 years to ever get back to a full workload AFTER they actually start pitching again, not just 3-4 years after their initial injury.

        Is there a concern about how guys are going to handle the jump in innings? Absolutely. And it’s for good reason. But that 30-40% part is mostly not applicable to this situation.

    • JB

      + 1000 on this. As much as people hate these below average signings, it is going to be a odd year for pitchers. If some of these relief pitchers can straighten out they will be going back and forth to Louisville because innings will be needed. I wouldnt be surprised if the Reds use double digit starters this year as well as well as other organizations. I wouldnt be surprised if Lodolo or Greene get spot starts later , especially if the Reds are in the running for the division.

      • JB

        I also think there is going to be a need for all these position players. With the shortened season last year , I think there will be more hamstring and oblique injuries. Not to mention there will be players missing time with covid. I like the backup position players on this team. They arent the starters but they are better than Jankowski and Colon or Davidson. Buckle up it will be a crazy year.

    • Roger Garrett

      Good plan but I hope Bell is in and understands it.Bell is known to run guys out there until he finds the guy that doesn’t have it and gives up the lead or the game.Hopefully with all of these pitchers to use he doesn’t use the one inning rule.That is asking to lose the game for sure