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.