The San Francisco Giants drafted Heath Hembree in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft. In his first season, he made 27 appearances out of the bullpen, striking out 42 batters and earning 4 saves. A power arm with a blazing fastball, Hembree showed a need to develop better control as he walked 18 batters as well.
In 2011, Hembree led the California League with 21 saves. Baseball America rated him as having the best fastball in the Giants’ organization. Hembree split time that year between Single-A San Jose and Double-A Richmond, posting a 1.86 ERA with 38 saves and 78 strikeouts across 54 games. Despite a stellar 13.2 SO/9, once again Hembree had issues with control, walking 25 batters in 53.1 innings, leading to a 1.14 WHIP.
Relying primarily on his fastball, Hembree struggled in 2012 after being promoted to Triple-A Fresno in the hitter-friendly PCL league. He posted a 4.74 ERA in 39 games, walking 20 while his SO/9 dropped to 8.5. Most alarmingly, his BB/9 rose to 4.7, and reports surfaced that his overuse of the fastball had led to arm fatigue. Hembree was shut down after only 39 games, and his stock began to fall as it became clear that he had not yet developed a secondary pitch to complement his high-octane fastball.
Well-rested coming into 2013, Hembree looked to rebound and re-establish himself as a top prospect in the Giants’ system. The season in Fresno did not begin as well as he had hoped. A 5.73 ERA in May and 7.84 ERA in June probably cost Hembree a promotion to the big leagues when reliever Santiago Casilla had surgery to remove a bone cyst and the Giants were in need of a right-handed power arm in the bullpen. General Manager Brian Sabean went on record as saying that “Hembree has been inconsistent in the strike zone and doesn’t have a secondary pitch.”
This blunt assessment forced Hembree to re-evaluate his approach. He always had a secondary pitch – a slider – but he had not learned how to trust his other pitches yet. Once hitters began to predict the fastball, they started to hit off him with more consistency. And if Hembree couldn’t locate the fastball well, he was putting them on base for free.
“I just had to learn to pitch with it,” Hembree stated. “I started using my secondary pitches more – different situations, different counts. You get people off our fastball.” (link)
The adjustment worked as Hembree posted a 2.49 ERA from July 1st on. More importantly, he saw his SO/9 improve to 10.2 and BB/9 drop to 2.6, the lowest rate in his professional career thus far. Let’s not fail to mention that Hembree also collected 31 saves despite his early struggles, a Fresno record. The only concerning stat is Hembree’s 16 earned runs in 18.1 innings with runners in scoring position, but much of that damage occurred in May and June, including 3 of those runs on homers with the bases empty. In July and August, Hembree gave up a total of 6 runs with only 1 home run in 22 games. Embracing the closer role, Hembree allowed a Grizzlies employee to pick his entrance music, and given Hembree’s arm, the selection was quite appropriate: the Top Gun theme song.
Although Hembree continues to polish his game as he develops as a pitcher and learns to use his secondary pitches to dictate counts, he earned a September call-up to the Giants this season and pitched a perfect inning, striking out two Padres on the road in an impressive big league debut. In a symbolic gesture, clubhouse manager Mike Murphy issued number 38 to Hembree, Brian Wilson‘s old number.
It might not be long before Hembree is the top gun in the Giants’ bullpen.
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