Michael Lorenzen has a 2.98 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds this season, which is good. It’s quite good, really, and the kind of number you’d give anything to see from any Reds pitcher in any year, period. After shrugging off an oblique injury that sidelined him for nearly the first two full months of the season, he has managed 48.1 IP of keeping a good portion of the hitters he’s faced from scoring runs.
That’s a good front for the story. What’s troubling is what’s bubbling behind those numbers, and what it means for the Reds going forward.
For one, Lorenzen has seen his average fastball velocity dip 1.4 mph from the 2017 season, sitting now at an even 95.0 mph. Meanwhile, his cutter - which he used 19.7% of the time in 2017 at 92.8 mph - is being relied on more often now (24.2% in 2018) while seeing an even more precipitous drop in average velocity (90.2 mph in 2018). And if the dip in velocity from the chiseled RHP isn’t alarming enough to you, what’s happened after he’s thrown them might even reveal larger red flags.
For one, he’s barely striking anyone out this season, as his 5.6 K/9 is easily a career low. Between 2016-2017, he struck out 8.7 batters per 9 IP in 105 games after switching exclusively to the bullpen, a number that was plenty impressive enough for him to warrant a late inning relief role. What’s particularly of note, though, is that while his strikeout numbers have declined rapidly, so, too, have his walk rates climbed, from 2.3 per 9 IP in 2016 to 3.7 in 2017, and they now sit at an unsightly 4.1 per 9 IP in this 2018 season.
All told, that’s left him with just a 1.36 K/BB, which ranks as the 3rd worst in all of Major League Baseball among the 137 relievers who have thrown at least 40 IP this year. That’s quite bad, really.
What’s equally as troubling as him not being able to put hitters away and likely seeing his walk rate spike as a result of that is what’s actually happening to the balls that he allows in play. His 36.2% hard-hit rate is by far and away the highest total of his career, well above the 26.7% rate from 2017 and the 23.0% rate from his stellar 2016 performance. It should therefore not be too much of a surprise to see that his groundball rate has also fallen to just 47.7%, down from 62.7% in 2016 and by far the lowest its been since his move to the bullpen.
So, while his ERA still sparkly, his peripherals suggest he’s not exactly getting the kind of results we’ve both come to expect and that usually go along with predicting good ERAs in the future. So, it should be unsurprising to see that his .275 BABIP allowed is a career low, as is the 7.1% HR/FB rate he’s yielded this year.
His career BABIP allowed sits at an even .300 - even with this season’s numbers baked in - meaning he’s somehow managed to be luckier than ever in the same season in which he’s allowed the most hard-hit balls of his career, which is a divergent set of numbers. Similarly, the 7.1% HR/FB rate is down mightily from 15.0% in 2017 and 22.7% in 2016, though that’s come despite him allowing fewer groundballs and more balls in the air than ever. Allowing harder-hit balls that are in the air should both a) increase an expected ERA and b) increase the percent of balls that fly over the wall, but he’s somehow seen both would-be trends kick him numbers in the opposite, more fortuitous direction.
The thing about Lorenzen is that, for awhile, he sat as the only other legitimate relief arm in the Cincinnati bullpen alongside Raisel Iglesias. The 2016-2017 Cincinnati bullpen somehow combined to be ‘worth’ a total of -3.1 fWAR, a full 6.2 fWAR behind the second worst bullpen in baseball. Lorenzen’s numbers during that time were largely good, however, and he was a perfectly cromulent piece of that pie. The 2018 Cincinnati bullpen has been completely overhauled, however, with the likes of Jared Hughes and David Hernandez inked to cheap multi-year deals and producing excellently, and even Amir Garrett flashing bits of brilliance in late situations in many instances this year. And with Lorenzen set to enter his second year of arbitration eligibility this winter, he’ll be due a raise into the ~$2 million range for 2019 despite potentially being the fifth best option on-paper for the bullpen.
That, of course, presumes he’s both a) still in the bullpen, as the idea of him getting a chance to start again still crops up here and there, and b) the players in AAA behind him don’t take a step forward between now and 2019. The six man rotation the team is currently employing likely won’t sustain for 2019, at least to start the season, and that mix doesn’t even include the recently promoted Cody Reed. At AAA, the likes of Tanner Rainey, Brandon Finnegan, Austin Brice, Lucas Sims, and Matt Wisler will all be in the mix for big league roles in 2019, as will Jimmy Herget when he’s inevitably added to the 40-man roster this winter. There are even another handful of arms who have had big league time in 2018 and still occupy 40-man roster spots who will be in contention for bullpen roles, including Wandy Peralta - whose own drop in Ks and spike of BBs led to his demotion from bullpen lock to AAA earlier this season.
The odds of Lorenzen falling out of the mix completely are still long, obviously. He’s got a track record of good success on his side, a work ethic that has endeared himself to his front office and coaches, and still has plenty good stuff to fawn over. He’s also proven to be a lethal-enough bat off the bench to allow the club to carry extra pitching, which has a great bit of value, too. That said, despite an otherwise solid 2.98 ERA so far this year, there’s a lot about what he’s done on the mound that should have how much the Reds are willing to depend on him in big spots going forward called into question a bit.
Hopefully, he figures things out in the final ~ 40 games of this year.