One of the most important decisions facing the Cincinnati Reds front office is whether to use Michael Lorenzen in the starting rotation or assign him to the bullpen.
Issue: Lorenzen pitched for the Reds as a starter in 2015 and as a reliever in 2016. It is beyond debate Lorenzen was more effective in 2016. Behold that sub-3 SIERA:
Also, by SIERA, Michael Lorenzen was the best pitcher in the organization.
So the decision about next year is easy, right? Lorenzen thrived in the pen and struggled as a starter. Back to relieving he goes.
Except what if the reason Michael Lorenzen was better in 2016 wasn’t his more limited role. Suppose Lorenzen developed in ways that carry over to a starting pitcher. The Reds have to figure that out.
Over the past few months, Nick Carrington (“has the stuff, the mental makeup, and the work ethic”) and Matt Wilkes (“fastballs tail in to right-handers, breaking pitches get late, sharp movement”) have made a compelling, detailed case at Redleg Nation for using Lorenzen as a starter. Let me offer more support for their conclusion.
Typically, when a pitcher has greater success as a reliever than as a starter, it’s attributed to being more effective with a smaller number of pitches. He might have a dominant pitch or two, which works fine in short appearances, but not mastery of the three or four thought to be necessary to succeed as a starter. Those pitchers belong in the bullpen.
Was that the case for Michael Lorenzen?
No. As a starter in 2015, he threw mostly fastballs, a smaller number of sliders and curveballs and a few change-ups. But in 2016, he added two power pitches – a cut fastball and sinker – to go with his 4-seamer.
From 2015 to 2016, Michael Lorenzen developed a substantially different pitch composition. Classifying pitches is an inexact project. That’s why the three sources have varying results. But they agree that Lorenzen cut back on his curve and change and threw new variations on his power pitches, whether you call it a cutter or slider.
But that wasn’t the only change in his game. Lorenzen attributes his improved pitching to new confidence and mental toughness.
“Last year, I was a person who was afraid to look bad out there in front of a full stadium, in front of a city, in front of a country on SportsCenter,” Lorenzen said. “I was so afraid to look bad. Now, if you show me someone who’s afraid to look bad, I can show you someone who can be beat every single time.” (Zach Buchanan, Cincinnati Enquirer)
A big jump in Lorenzen’s development as a starting pitcher wouldn’t be surprising. When the Reds selected him out of Cal State Fullerton with the 38th pick in the 2013 amateur draft, he hadn’t started a single game in three seasons at the college level. Lorenzen had been an outfielder at Fullerton. He also pitched an inning of relief to close out games, something he did 42 times. But zero pitching starts.
The Reds wisely moved Lorenzen to a starting role in 2014. He spent the season at AA-Pensacola where he threw 120 innings in 24 starts. The next year, Lorenzen made six starts at AAA-Louisville before he was called up to take Homer Bailey’s place with the Reds.
His first big league starting assignment came at age 23, after only 30 starts the previous five years. Think about that. In total Lorenzen pitched 156 innings for the Reds and Louisville in 2015. Like most young pitchers, he struggled.
The Reds were planning on Lorenzen starting in 2016 until a mild elbow injury and mononucleosis delayed his joining the roster for almost three months. By then, the bullpen’s performance had become unbearable. Lorenzen was assigned the role of reliever, which he held the rest of the season. In it, he dominated major league hitters.
What are the Reds future plans for Michael Lorenzen?
We have hints. A few weeks ago, Nick Krall, assistant general manager, seemed more than comfortable with the notion of leaving Lorenzen in the bullpen. General manager Dick Williams recently talked about discussing roles for Reds pitchers like Michael Lorenzen at upcoming organizational meetings.
But most concerning was manager Bryan Price saying just after the season ended that he wants Lorenzen’s role to be settled before spring training. Price explained he sought to avoid a repeat of how the Reds dealt with Aroldis Chapman, when the organization went into spring training without a set role for the Cuban lefty.
“I don’t want to go into spring training saying, hey, we’re going to do this and go down the (Aroldis) Chapman road. I’d like to avoid that,” Price said.
Price is referring to 2012 and 2013 when Chapman was prepped as a starter in spring training then moved to the bullpen. In 2010 and 2011, Chapman had started 16 games for Reds minor league affiliates.
I must have missed all those regular season games in April when Chapman struggled as a reliever because he’d been used as a starter in spring training.
Reality check: In March/April 2012 and 2013, Chapman gave up one run in 25.2 innings. He struck out 42 out of 95 batters faced.
Yeah, I ‘d sure want to avoid that.
Chapman didn’t want to start. We know Lorenzen does. Of course, the real issue with how the Reds handled Chapman was the substance of the decision, not the timing. The substance? Whether or not you think Chapman would have worked out as a starter, the Reds never tried it, even with the astronomical upside.
The welcome news with Michael Lorenzen is the Reds don’t have to decide right away. 2017 is another year of the Rebuild. The decision to give Bryan Price a one-year extension makes that crystal clear. If the Reds expected to start contending in 2017, they would have signed a manager for multiple years, whether that was Price or someone else.
2017 is a second phase of the Rebuild and that’s OK. But that also means there is no reason to rush a final decision on how to use Michael Lorenzen (or other pitchers).
This is where Bryan Price may face a conflict of interest. It’s in Price’s personal interest for the Reds to be managed in a way that maximizes wins in the short term. That improves his prospects in 2018 and beyond, whether that’s with the Reds or another organization.
But long-term considerations are more important for the organization and its fans. What’s best in the short term and long term may be in conflict. One example is the timing of AAA-promotions. It might be better for Price if the Reds promoted a player like Jesse Winker sooner. But the organization would benefit long term from delay because of service time considerations. Another example of that clash is determining playing time for veterans. Developing young players may come with a cost in the 2017 win column.
The choice of when to make a final decision about Michael Lorenzen’s role falls into that category. The Reds still have five years of team control over Lorenzen. (Loved typing that sentence.) Making a decision before March might be rational if your goal is to get the team off to a fast start in the standings. But it’s irrational if uncertainty can be minimized simply by giving Lorenzen a good look as a starter.
Given the balance of short-term and long-term considerations, it’s senseless to rush a judgment about Lorenzen (or other players). Caveat about health information we don’t know, of course.
Painful as it was to watch the Reds bullpen last April and May, the Reds were right not to expend resources on relievers in a rebuilding season. The return on relief pitching is short-term, at best. If 2017 is another season of rebuilding the case for restraint would be the same.
Important: Any decision predicated on improving the Reds bullpen for 2017 that comes with a significant cost is foolish.
Opportunity costs are costs. Dick Williams, as a former investment banker, understands that. Assigning a pitcher to the bullpen instead of trying him as a starter carries an opportunity cost. In Lorenzen’s case, the pitcher with the lowest SIERA on the team, it may be steep.
But even if the horror of repeating the first-half 2016 bullpen is intolerable for you, relax, the 2017 version won’t be as barren. If we assume the Opening Day rotation begins Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, Dan Straily and Brandon Finnegan, that leaves these names competing for a single starter/reliever slot: Raisel Iglesias, Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed, John Lamb, Tony Cingrani and Blake Wood. And that doesn’t include non-roster pitchers who could earn major league debuts. That leaves plenty surplus talent to create a capable bullpen.
Maybe Michael Lorenzen was the best pitcher in the Reds organization last year because he was in the bullpen.
Or maybe he developed as a pitcher in ways that carry over to a starting role. Lorenzen wouldn’t be the first 24-year-old to do so. His age, stronger pitch composition and new mindset point that way. Maybe his vast improvement wasn’t due to pitching one or two innings at a time. Just maybe Michael Lorenzen became a different, better version of his professional self in 2016. At a certain point you trust your eyes.
Fans were sharply divided in their view of the right role for Aroldis Chapman. Disagreement about Michael Lorenzen is likely today. There may not be a clear cut, right answer on his future yet.
Happily, the Reds don’t have to guess or decide now. With so much at stake, they should wait and make the decision after seeing him perform for a while as a starter.
Walt Jocketty no longer has official authority. Dick Williams and his assistants are in charge. They deserve a clean slate as we judge their decision-making going forward. But make no mistake the fresh start has begun.
It’s up to Williams and his front office to assure the long-term is protected from Bryan Price’s understandable focus on the immediate and their own temptation to show impatient fans right away an improved outcome from new management.
How they proceed with Michael Lorenzen will be an early indicator whether the new front office has learned the right lesson from the past.
Or whether they’ve learned the wrong one, backward.