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SoxProspects News

January 13, 2016 at 8:00 AM

2015 Graduates in Review: Heath Hembree and Steven Wright

As an extension of our Top 40 in Review series, over the next two weeks we will feature the seven players who were ranked in the SoxProspects.com Top 40 during the 2015 season and graduated from prospect status. All entries in this year's Top 40 Season in Review series can be found here.

Steven Wright, RHP
2015 Teams: Boston Red Sox, Pawtucket Red Sox
Final Stats: 72 2/3 IP, 4.09 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 52 K, 27 BB (majors); 52 IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 42 K, 15 BB (minors)
Peak System Ranking: 21 (Oct. 10, 2014)
Graduated: June 2015 (#31)
Season in Review2014 

Season in Review: Spending his third full season with the Red Sox on the I-95 shuttle, Wright recorded more than twice as many innings in the majors in 2015 as he had the prior two combined, earning nine starts. With Joe Kelly beginning the season on the disabled list, the knuckleballer actually broke camp with the major league club as an extra arm, in case Kelly could not make his first start. Instead, he wound up a key piece of an early season win in the Bronx, pitching the 15th through 19th innings to pick up the win on April 10 in his lone appearance before heading down to Pawtucket. Wright made four starts for the PawSox during this stint, allowing eight earned runs in 11 innings in his first two outings before a seven-day layoff thanks to a one-day call-up in which he did not pitch. After returning, he threw two, seven-inning gems in which he allowed one run on seven hits and five walks while striking out 14.

With the Red Sox playing musical bullpen in early May and Justin Masterson struggling, Wright got another chance to come up on the 10th, and after one long relief appearance following an early Masterson exit on May 12, Wright got the first shot to replace him in the rotation. Wright took four turns, posting a 3.91 ERA and allowing 20 hits and three walks in 23 innings, striking out 12. While he certainly did not pitch poorly, the emergence of Eduardo Rodriguez pushed Wright to the bullpen until Masterson returned from the disabled list on June 23, when he was optioned back to the Pawtucket rotation.

Wright tossed a complete-game gem in his first game back, allowing one run on four hits and no walks while whiffing five, but he still somehow took the tough-luck loss. He would allow 16 runs, 12 earned, over 18 innings in his next three starts, but the Red Sox called on him and Brian Johnson to replace Masterson and the injured Clay Buchholz in the rotation coming out of the All-Star break. Wright made five starts in this opportunity, posting a 3.99 ERA and striking out 28 while allowing 26 hits and 14 walks in 29 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, after a string of four starts in which he allowed two or fewer earned runs, Wright’s season came to an end due to a freak accident, as he was hit on the back of the neck by a line drive before a game in Miami on August 12. Wright was able to pitch off a mound in September, but he never was activated due to his continuing concussion symptoms. – Chris Hatfield

Scouting Report and 2016 Outlook: There's not much mystery to what Steven Wright is going to throw when he takes the mound, yet the mystery of the pitch itself is what allows him to throw the knuckleball the majority of the time. The lack of spin makes the pitch dip and dive or float and flutter unpredictably, making even the best of hitters look foolish at times. Of course, when it's not going well, it can become a 70-mph meatball. Wright had stretches of both in 2015 but proved to be a capable innings eater who could provide length out of the bullpen or fill a hole in the rotation.

As Wright told me back in 2012 when he was first acquired by the Red Sox, struggling as a conventional pitcher in Double-A, he began mixing in the knuckleball sparingly in 2010 just as an out pitch. When that story was written, Wright estimated he was throwing the pitch 75-80 percent of the time. In 2013, he threw the pitch about 84 percent of the time. Early this season, he was actually throwing it more than 90 percent of the time, but as the season wore on, he worked in his sinker more, the knuckler being used about 78-85 percent of the time. (H/T to Brooks Baseball for those numbers.) Wright will vary the speed of the pitch to give different looks from the high 60s up into the high 70s. Because he did make it to Triple-A with a standard repertoire before picking up the knuckleball, Wright does possess a variety of pitches he can throw, including a cutter and curve, but he has mainly phased those out at the major league level, throwing only four-seam and sinking fastballs the other 10 percent of the time last season. Both pitches sit in the low-to-mid 80s, and he mainly throws them to catch batters off-guard and keep them off his knuckleball.

Wright is out of options this season, and he projects to fill that same swingman role in the majors again this year. Should the roster remain mostly as constituted now, he projects to begin the season as the team's primary long-relief option out of the bullpen, and always an option as an emergency spot starter. - Matt Huegel

2015 Teams: Boston Red Sox, Pawtucket Red Sox
Final Stats: 25 1/3 IP, 3.55 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 15 K, 9 BB (majors); 32 2/3 IP, 2.20 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 32 K, 10 BB (minors)
Peak System Ranking: 19 (Sept. 19, 2014)
Graduated: September 2015 (#27)
Season in Review: 2014 

Season in Review: In his first full season in the Red Sox system after coming over from San Francisco in the Jake Peavy trade in 2014, Hembree showed that he had at least mastered Triple-A and was perhaps ready for a full-time shot in the majors. He was one of several relievers who made several trips up to Fenway from McCoy as the Boston bullpen struggled all season, receiving four different call-ups to the majors. Hembree’s first summons to the bigs came after a great start in Pawtucket in which he threw eight scoreless innings over six appearances, striking out 10 and facing just four batters over the minimum. Unfortunately, his stay lasted just one game, as he allowed six runs to the Orioles in an inning and a third on April 26, and was sent back to Pawtucket immediately after the game.

Undaunted, Hembree settled back in as Pawtucket’s closer, with six of his next eight appearances being of the scoreless variety. He would allow two earned on eight hits and no walks, striking out seven. Given another one-game shot in Boston, he performed much better, pitching a scoreless eighth against the heart of the Twins order on May 25. Hembree hopped back on the shuttle, recording four more scoreless appearances for the PawSox before coming back up to Boston on June 12. He would make two appearances in a series against Toronto, going two scoreless in each, but in a stroke of poor luck, inflammation in his right shoulder sent him to the DL, knocking him out of action for nearly a month.

Hembree returned to action with a rehab outing in the Gulf Coast League on July 14 before his rehab was transferred to Pawtucket. In his first game back, all four hitters Hembree faced reached and scored, but over his next ten outings, he settled back in, striking out 12 over 10 innings in which he allowed three runs. He was recalled to Boston for the final time on August 17 and looked ready to stay for good in his first extended look in Boston, allowing four runs on 17 hits and seven walks in 19 innings, striking out 12. – Chris Hatfield

Scouting Report and 2016 Outlook: Heath Hembree is a classic hard-throwing bullpen arm with a solid fastball-slider combination. He'll occasionally mix in a changeup but relies mainly on the two harder pitches. Last year, his fastball topped out at nearly 100 mph, but mainly sits 93-95. It does not have sink or much movement though, resulting in a lot of fly balls. Of pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched in Pawtucket, Hembree had the second-lowest groundball-to-fly ball ratio, but also the lowest slugging percentage against, so despite giving up a high amount of fly balls, he limited hard contact. Of that group, he also had the fourth-highest strikeout rate and fifth-highest strikeout-to-walk rate. Much of his ability to induce swings-and-misses can be attributed to his hard slider. He throws it in the mid-80s with short, horizontal break, almost like a hard curveball.

Due to the lack of strong changeup or third pitch, Hembree has a tougher time against lefties. Of the eight earned runs he allowed in Pawtucket, six came while facing lefties. Moreover, he posted a 1.31 WHIP against to lefties versus 0.86 against righties. Hembree is also at his best when he is in the zone, as his 2013 breakout in the minors with the Giants and his strong 2015 season were not coincidentally both his most successful seasons in allowing fewer walks and, therefore, fewer runs. While he walked at least 3.5 per nine innings in 2011, 2012, and 2014, in 2013 he kept that number to 2.6, and this past season he was at 2.9. Limiting free passes is crucial to his ability to limit big innings, and his ability to repeat that in 2016 will likely determine how much time he spends in Boston versus Pawtucket.

Overall, Hembree looks like he could round into a solid middle-inning reliever with some potential as a killer on righty batters. He has one option remaining, so he will likely begin the season in Pawtucket with a chance to be among the first called upon when reinforcements are necessary. However, the Pawtucket bullpen should be very competitive, with a number of players vying for a spot in line as the next call-up, and it will likely come down to which reliever is hot and fits the team's current needs most. - Matt Huegel

Photo Credit: Kelly O'Connor