As the 2016 regular season winds down, the Reds will face a litany of questions heading into the offseason. At the top of that list is determining what the starting rotation will look like and whether to use their two most talented pitchers — Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen — in starting roles.
That decision, of course, will boil down to the health of the two right-handers, as arm injuries forced them to pitch almost exclusively out of the bullpen this season. If it’s determined by team doctors that they can’t handle the workload of a full season of starting, the decision will be easy: leave them in the bullpen. And that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Both pitchers have thrown the ball extremely well out of the ‘pen, bringing much-needed stability to a group that was reeling through the first two months of the season.
But if the pitchers show they can potentially handle starting, the Reds can’t afford to pigeonhole either one in the bullpen based on the success they’ve had there this year (though the argument can certainly be made that the duo would be better utilized as 100-inning relievers, as our friends at Red Reporter recently did). Most baseball fans realize that starters bring more value than relievers based on logging far more innings. With Iglesias and Lorenzen, it goes beyond that. If you make a list of the pitchers with the best pure stuff in the Reds organization, those two may be at the very top.
Lorenzen’s four-seam fastball averages 96 mph and has been clocked as high as 99, while his two-seamer, slider, and curveball all have nasty movement in their own right. Both of his fastballs both tail in to right-handers, while his breaking pitches get late, sharp movement. His curveball has been among the league’s best, averaging nearly eight inches of vertical movement, ranking among the likes of Felix Hernandez and Rich Hill. The movement on all of his pitches has helped him to a ridiculous 61.9 ground-ball percentage this season (his slider sits at 63 percent, while his two-seamer is over 70 percent). Most of his spin rates don’t jump off the page, except for his nasty slider, which averages 2,471 rpm, ranking 21st out of 132 pitchers who have thrown the ball 200 or more times.
While the strikeout numbers aren’t where you’d expect them to be for a pitcher with Lorenzen’s stuff (23.3 K%), he has, of course, seen the number go up as a reliever and has also improved his control tremendously in his second big-league season, dropping his walk rate from 11.1 percent to 6.3 percent. All of this has boiled down to a 2.45 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 3.16 xFIP.
Iglesias, on the other hand, may not throw as hard on average (although he has cranked it up to 98 on occasion), but his stuff may be even better than Lorenzen. He comes at hitters from all different arm angles and boasts four pitches that all generate a ton of movement. The horizontal movement on his sinker, for example, is over nine inches as it tails toward the right-handed batter’s box. No other pitcher with more than 70 innings pitched has averaged more horizontal movement on the pitch. Additionally, the spin rates on Iglesias’ four-seam, sinker, and slider are all above league average, which has helped him to a plus whiff rate on each:
Interestingly, Iglesias still hasn’t been quite as good as he was last year when he pitched mostly as a starter. His 2.24 ERA and 3.30 FIP are improvements, but his xFIP (3.90) and SIERA (3.62) have both increased by a bit, which we can trace back to a slight dip in strikeouts, a slight rise in walks, and a slightly below average home-run-to-fly-ball ratio.
In some ways, the situations of Iglesias and Lorenzen are comparable to that of Aroldis Chapman. The circumstances that sent Chapman to the bullpen were different, of course. Rather than being forced in a relief role due to injury, he was moved there out of necessity, as the Reds were a competitive team and needed help in the bullpen. Once the Cuban Missile had success in the ‘pen, the organization never gave him an opportunity to start again. Things still worked out for Chapman and the team as he became the most dominant closer in baseball, but it’s hard not to wonder what he could’ve done in a starting role.
The club has a chance to make a different choice with Iglesias and Lorenzen, though. They’ve both been incredibly successful in the bullpen, but they could be great starters. If health or performance keeps that from happening, there’s nothing wrong with that. But both pitchers should at least get an opportunity to show they can hold up in a starting role and truly maximize their potential.