The 2010 season for the Cincinnati Reds was a special one, obviously, and there will forever be a division championship banner hanging somewhere with their name on it as a result. Without getting too nostalgic about that team as a whole, though, I’d like to quickly highlight one particular ‘special’ aspect of that club.
The Reds 2009 1st round pick, Mike Leake, stormed immediately to the big leagues to begin 2010, never once logging a minor league inning prior to his big league debut. A rare feat, that. While his pitching ability and polish on the mound were the driving forces behind the advancement, what he managed to provide at the plate became something of an instant revelation, too. In 60 PA, he hit a rock solid .333/.407/.354 (107 OPS+), laid down an old-school-slurping 6 sac bunts, and generally earned a quick reputation as something of a legitimate hitter in an age where National League pitchers swung a wet noodle three times and returned to the bench.
Perhaps it was due to his proximity to the college game - he posted a 1.074 OPS as a sophomore at Arizona State and backed it up with an .828 OPS his final year there. Regardless, that reputation stuck with him through his early years with the Reds, and by the end of his third full season as a starter he owned a career .274 average and .656 OPS, borderline slugger-level production from a pitcher in this modern age.
I know not if Leake’s story is at all correlation here, or merely a parable, but I’m going to segue into Michael Lorenzen here either way.
Lorenzen has largely thrived in his bullpen role since moving there after his rookie season in 2015, but after a pair of solid spot-starts and a durable arm that makes him again profile as a potentially capable starting pitcher, it’s something that the Reds themselves are considering as spring training looms. There are the voids left by Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani that need to be filled, after all, on top of the staff-wide stretch back to a 162 game schedule after the abbreviated 60 game slate in 2020.
On a pure talent proposition, the idea of slotting Lorenzen back into the rotation makes some good sense. He has still shown the ability to retire batters over multiple innings as a reliever, and the honest truth about the in-house options the Reds have at the moment is that there aren’t many other obvious options that make him pale in comparison. It would further dent a bullpen that already lost Raisel Iglesias, Archie Bradley, and Nate Jones (Nate Jones!), too, but if the plan is to throw your best pitchers the most, Lorenzen probably warrants a rotation spot on that merit alone.
Back to the Mike Leake parable/correlation/metaphor thing for a second. It should be immediately noted that Leake and Lorenzen’s incredibly small-sample batting statistics already show they’re very different with the bat in their hands, as one was a contact-oriented swinger while the other - Lorenzen - has shown enormous power. The point of the comparison, though, was about perception.
If the Reds still look at Lorenzen as a player who can add value, and not take it away, when allowed to have the bat in his hands, just how much does the news from yesterday that there will be no Designated Hitter in the National League in 2021 impact how they’ll use him?
Lorenzen, you’ll recall, was a stud CF in college at Cal-State Fullerton, one who profiled as a potential 1st round pick based on his position-playing ability alone. He was mostly just a fireballing closer on the mound at that point, though the Reds chose to have him initially focus just on pitching. Eventually, though, the reality of the talent he still possessed offensively was given a chance to play out on occasion, and boy, did it - particularly in 2018. That season saw him sock 4 dingers in just 34 trips to the plate, and on the off-chance you’re wondering if those were flukes, they were not.
In 2018, he had the single hardest-hit ball of any Red (116.5 exit velocity), while the average exit-velocity of balls he hit was higher (93.3 mph) than any other regular on the Reds roster. In other words, his bat contains a pile of pop, something that his biceps probably had you believing before that FanGraphs data.
There are still ample flaws in Lorenzen’s game with the bat, of course. After that 2018 breakout earned him more opportunities as both a pinch-hitter and outfielder, he hit just .208/.283/.313 in 53 PA in 2019, with only a lone trip to the batter’s box in 2020 with the DH in play in the NL. Still, we’re talking about a pitcher here, and while the latest small-sample of date from him at the plate shows flaws, the obvious potential for him to be better in the box than his pitcher-hitting peers is still very, very much there.
With that the case, does that give him the edge for a spot in the starting rotation? Does the value added with the bat 1.5 to 2 times a game over, say, Tejay Antone’s prowess at the plate really make that much difference?
Or, is it even the inverse? Does the need to pinch-hit for starting pitchers and re-institute double switching late in game mean Lorenzen’s value increases later in the game? Putting him in on the mound, letting him throw an inning, switching him to the OF after said inning, and letting him get a PA effectively lengthens manager David Bell’s bench while also keeping one of his elite arms in a depleted bullpen, too.
What I do know is that we will again see pitchers struggle to hit when given another chance in NL play this year, even if managers do everything they can to minimize the number of chances they get. Having a guy like Lorenzen around, though, sure would seem to give the Reds a bit of an advantage over most other options under the new/old rules. Rest assured, he’ll be getting as many or more PA as a pitcher than any other NL arm in 2021 one way or another.