In 2015, Michael Lorenzen became a curiosity, in the exact same way any pitcher does when he shows competency at the plate for any length of time. That year was his first in the big leagues, and thus far his only year as a starter. He had nine hits in 36 at-bats that season, good for a .250 average. He wasn’t the automatic out a pitcher is expected to be. He could handle swinging a bat.
In 2016, he became even more of a curiosity. That’s the year he hit his first career Major League home run, and did so as a relief pitcher. Relief pitchers have an even lower bar for success at the plate than starting pitchers. He got just five plate appearances that year, and used one of them to slug a dinger out of the yard.
Halfway through 2018, Lorenzen is no longer a curiosity — at least, not in the same way. He is no longer simply a more difficult out than most pitchers. He is no longer someone who can thrill us with a routine single, or who can sneak up on an opposing pitcher with a healthy swing on an elevated fastball. After five consecutive plate appearances reaching base, after recording the hardest exit velocity registered by a Reds hitter in four years, after hitting three home runs in a single week, Lorenzen is someone from whom success at the plate is expected. He is a player we genuinely want to see at the plate in critical situations.
He is a good pitcher who has forced this question into even the minds of even the most skeptical fans: Should the Reds make Michael Lorenzen a full-time position player?
It’s not an outlandish proposition. As has been noted many times before, Lorenzen played outfield at Cal State Fullerton, and slashed .342/.427/.479 his sophomore year. He also stole 19 bases in 26 attempts. He’s a killer athlete who was already headed for a professional career in the outfield, before upper-90s velocity on the mound made him a first round pick.
Some fans support this move, some find even the prospect asinine. That being said, it’s tough to argue that a Reds team which, recent hot streak notwithstanding, is still in a rebuilding phase, should absolutely ensure that they are squeezing the greatest possible value out of all 25 players on their roster. For many players, the path to that is quite simple. For Lorenzen, it’s very much not.
So, what options do the Reds have here? Let’s explore all of the ones that seem possible.
Option 1: Move Lorenzen to the outfield full-time
Call this the Rick Ankiel option. In this option, Lorenzen’s pitching days are officially put behind him, as the Reds commit to Lorenzen as the team’s center fielder of the future.
What would that look like?
Well, it certainly wouldn’t unfold in the big leagues. As gifted an athlete as Lorenzen is, it’s been seven years since he patrolled center field regularly. That’s a long time away from reading batted balls, perfecting routes, and mastering the throwing mechanics of an outfielder. There would be some growing pains, which Lorenzen would likely be asked to suffer through at the AAA level, or possibly lower than that.
And that’s to say nothing of the immense task Lorenzen would take on trying to develop as a big-league-ready hitter. In 65 career plate appearances, Lorenzen is hitting .271/.295/.559. That’s not bad! That’s an OPS+ of 124, for goodness sakes. But one walk in in 65 plate appearances becomes pretty problematic if you grade him as a hitter instead of a pitcher. And one other thing — he’s been pitched to as a pitcher. Obviously, opposing pitchers are trying to record outs no matter who is at the plate. There isn’t a different rule book for pitchers when they get to bat.
But with that being said, pitchers are treated differently at the plate. They see more fastballs and challenge pitches, and fewer breaking balls and pitches to the corners. Plus, 65 plate appearances isn’t enough time for a scouting report to develop on Lorenzen. One of the biggest questions surrounding young hitters is the way they adjust when the league adjusts to them. We have no way of knowing what Lorenzen’s adjustment period would look like.
I call this the Rick Ankiel option because he seems to be the best example of a pitcher recommitting himself as a position player so late in his career. Ankiel was a lot like Lorenzen — a pitcher who happened to have good speed and instincts in the outfield, and tons of pop at the plate without a ton of discipline. For his career, Ankiel hit .240/.302/.422, with a 7.7 percent walk rate and a 26.2 percent strikeout rate. In 11 seasons, he was worth 4.6 fWAR as a hitter.
This seems like a good place to start when discussing what Lorenzen’s potential might be like as a hitter. Am I saying it’s Lorenzen’s ceiling? Of course not. Lorenzen is a fantastic baseball player, and baseball is really damn weird. There’s one universe out there where Lorenzen becomes Mookie Betts. None of us are certain that’s technically out of the realm of possibility.
But if I could come up with an idea of what Lorenzen the hitter might look like — breaking back into the big leagues at 27 years old, with only a couple years of his prime left before his skills as he knows them begin to meaningfully deteriorate — it’d probably be pretty close to Ankiel’s line above.
And keep in mind, Ankiel made that move to the outfield out of necessity. He was a gifted young pitcher until the yips got in the way, and his walks got so out of control that he went from starting Game 1 of the NLDS at 21 years old to throwing his final big league pitches at 24. He felt a dramatic change was his only shot at sticking around.
For Lorenzen, that is very much not the case. He’s thrown 23.1 innings this season and holds a 1.93 ERA. He has not allowed a home run. If you commit to Lorenzen the hitter, you lose a pretty important arm on a team that absolutely cannot afford to lose arms. Which finally brings us to the next option:
Option 2: Increase Lorenzen’s at-bats by starting him
In his one year as a starter, Lorenzen batted 41 times. In three years since being converted to the bullpen, he’s batted just 24 times. It doesn’t take an advanced sabermatrician to figure this out: Starting pitchers generally get two plate appearances a game, which could prove valuable if used by Lorenzen. Getting to use him for two plate appearances a game could essentially be like getting a designated hitter. That seems like something the Reds ought to explore.
The issue is that the Reds, as I mentioned, have tried Lorenzen as a starter before. It didn’t go well. Now, that was three years ago, and one would hope Lorenzen has developed a bit since then, but the fact remains that the bullpen has proven to be a far better utilization of Lorenzen’s arm. He strikes out more guys in relief roles, walks fewer batters, and allows fewer homers.
And most importantly, the bullpen seems to be the best bet for keeping Lorenzen healthy. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that taking someone who threw fewer than 25 innings the first two years he’d ever pitched and asking him to suddenly throw 120 innings one year later didn’t seem to do great things for the condition of his shoulder and elbow. If the object of this game is to find ways to get more out of Lorenzen, the option that provides the greatest risk of not having him at all doesn’t seem like a great idea.
Which brings us to...
Option 3: Continue to pitch him in relief, allowing him to bat for himself when the circumstances allow for it and using him as a pinch-hitter on days he doesn’t pitch.
Yes, this is what the Reds are doing right now. And I dunno, doesn’t it seem to be working?
He’s pitching like a lights-out reliever, doing so for multiple innings at times, and has been available for some pretty huge swings of the bat when the Reds have asked for them. That sounds like pretty much your ideal scenario.
Not to mention, the Reds have used him pretty much every chance they’ve gotten. In 35 games the team has played since he came back from injury, he’s been used in 15 of them. He’s packed 1.2 bWAR into those 15 games. Extrapolate that over the course of the rest of the season, and that’s around 3.7 bWAR in 48 games. Account for the fact that he missed the first two months of the season, and you’ve suddenly got a 5 bWAR player on your hands over the course of a full season.
Now obviously, that figure requires Lorenzen to hold his ERA where it is, which his FIP says is unlikely to happen, and that he continues to homer in three of every seven plate appearances he’s given, which every fundamental law of the universe says is unlikely to happen. But you see my point.
Until Shohei Otani returns from his injury, the Reds possess the best two-way player in the sport. That’s a damn exciting fact, and it’s only made more exciting by the fact that the Reds seem to be using him precisely the way they should be.