After Eugenio Suarez allowed a grounder to roll between his legs, right after he and Scooter Gennett couldn’t be bothered to hold on to the ball on simple, consecutive tag plays, and right after Suarez airmailed a throw to first base, it occurred to me last night that watching the Reds had become morbid habit, rather than cheerful exercise.
In what’ll amount to a sick one-two punch, this sad display of baseball will be followed by ownership pablum and media fluffing about how the team has “played hard” for Jim Fundamentals to the end. I mean, what should we believe, tired baseball clichés and narratives about Good Ol’ Jim or our lying eyes?
As if this Reds season itself hasn’t been enough of an insult to our intelligence.
It’s profound understatement to say the Reds have done little of late on the field or off to inspire viewership. Yet tonight, I’ll watch. Eagerly. There’s a compelling reason to tune in. Two, really.
Michael Lorenzen’s pitching and Michael Lorenzen’s hitting.
Lorenzen will toe the rubber with max effort at Miller Park as the Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher. His last major league start was September 16, 2015, eerily almost three years ago to the date. Since then, the strapping Californian has made more than 150 appearances as a reliever for the Reds.
It’s mid-September and, as you’ll see, the writers here have authored an ocean of pixels analyzing Lorenzen’s pitching and hitting. There isn’t much new to say about him this year. So this post is a retrospective of the 26-year-old’s rollercoaster journey with the Reds organization and its chronicling by the writers of Redleg Nation.
College and the Draft
Michael Lorenzen was a two-way player for college baseball powerhouse Cal State Fullerton. By his junior season, Lorenzen had become the team’s starting center fielder, clean-up hitter and closer. He earned several First Team All-American honors. Lorenzen had arrived to college out of Fullerton High School as a position player. But because of his outstanding arm, he was asked by his manager to ascend from centerfield to the pitcher’s mound to finish games. Lorenzen did this 42 times for Fullerton over two seasons.
The Cincinnati Reds chose Lorenzen after his junior season in the 2013 June amateur draft. He was the 38th selection overall, a competitive balance pick sandwiched between the first two rounds.
Would Lorenzen be a pitcher or position player for the Reds? He was eager to try both. The Reds said they would entertain this. “We’re going to kind of have a unique plan with him,” said Chris Buckely, Reds scouting director. “We’re going to try to let him do a little bit of both.”
That turned out to not be the case. The plan, far from unique, was to have Lorenzen pitch. Just pitch. In fact, Michael Lorenzen hadn’t played a minute as an outfielder for the Reds at any level until taking right field for an inning in an emergency this August.
Minor League Years
On July 4, 2013, Lorenzen’s name appeared for the first time at Redleg Nation, in Greg Dafler’s daily “Down on the Farm” column, the morning after the young right-hander had taken the mound in his first game. “Michael Lorenzen made his professional debut, pitching in just the first inning. In his inning of work, he struck out a batter, allowed one hit and one unearned run.”
Lorenzen rocketed through the Reds farm system that summer he was drafted. He spent brief time with the Arizona Reds Rookie team, the A-level Dayton Dragons, the A+ Bakersfield Blaze and ended 2013 with the AA Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He had pitched in 22 games, with 19 strikeouts in 20.1 innings.
Lorenzen spent the entire 2014 season at AA with Pensacola. That April, Doug Gray penned the first analysis of Lorenzen’s pitching here. That was also when the Reds converted the outfielder-turned-closer into a starting pitcher. Lorenzen made 24 appearances in 2014 — all as a starter — over 120.2 innings, with a 3.13 ERA.
Lorenzen had pitched well enough the previous year to be considered, albeit a long shot, for the 2015 Reds rotation. Due to several injuries to other Reds pitchers, Lorenzen almost did reach the major league Opening Day staff. He made it to the final round of cuts, losing out to Raisel Iglesias for the fifth spot. Lorenzen was assigned to AAA-Louisville where he made six April starts. His ERA was 1.88, but he’d struck out just 19 batters in 43 innings.
Major League Debut
Much-needed development time as a starter was not in Lorenzen’s future. That April, Homer Bailey made two starts before being sidelined with a torn UCL requiring Tommy John surgery. Michael Lorenzen was rushed up to take Bailey’s place in the rotation. His first major league start occurred on April 28, 2015, an afternoon game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Several Redleg Nation writers made a point of attending that game together. In the recap, I wrote:
“Lorenzen seemed poised. His only walk was a pitch-around. No wild pitches, no hit batters. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers show nerves in their first game and Lorenzen was the opposite of that. The Brewers hit him hard at times, particularly when Lorenzen’s fastball elevated. He threw a lot of pitches, which isn’t unusual for a first game. On the stadium radar gun, Lorenzen’s fastball sat 93-95 all day. He threw a breaking ball in the mid-80s. On his first pitch in the top of the third, Lorenzen showed a 78-mph breaking ball. It went for a strike against Jean Segura, as the Brewers lineup turned over to face the young right-hander for a second time.”
Also: “One last note: Lorenzen is going to hit some. He played centerfield for Cal State Fullerton. In the first AB of his career, he lined a sharp single to right field.”
Kevin Michell wrote a longer analysis of Lorenzen’s debut the next day:
“Despite the end result, his first start displayed his exceptional ability but maybe more so his focus and rapid maturation as a starter, particularly when he worked out of jams in the fourth and fifth innings. Now with the jitters and uncertainty of his first start out of the way, we can sit back and watch a young, talented pitcher learn and improve at the highest level.”
Nick Doran, who was with the RN group at Lorenzen’s debut, had this to say two weeks later:
“I believe Lorenzen will eventually be a good pitcher, but he has been rushed to the majors before he is ready because the Reds needed a replacement for Homer Bailey and had no other alternatives ready to step in. Lorenzen is still learning how to pitch and he is going to have to do it in the majors. That is a tough situation for any young pitcher, especially so for a guy who was still an outfielder a couple years ago. He has a very strong arm and a lot of athletic ability. I think he will succeed but there will be a lot of bumps in the road along the way.”
A couple months into the season, his fastball velocity began to wane and Lorenzen become more hittable.
“Needless to say, there’s a big difference between pitching at 96 and pitching at 92. As I’m sure they realize, the club has to figure out if Lorenzen is suffering from a temporary condition like dead arm, or fatigue from how much he’s pitched. I’ve been reading up on Tommy John surgery for an upcoming post(s) and the studies are clear that pitching with a fatigued arm puts the elbow at risk. Lorenzen’s great physical conditioning could help with that. It’s important to keep in mind how little starting (all pitching, for that matter) experience he has.”
Lorenzen went on to make 21 starts for the Reds in 2015, pitching 113.1 innings. He struck out 83 and walked 57. It had gone about as well as you would expect (5.40 ERA / 4.82 xFIP / 4.98 SIERA) for a young, inexperienced pitcher thrown into that situation.
Ongoing Debate Over Role
Heading into the 2016 season, we began to wonder what Michael Lorenzen’s role would be for the Reds. In February it looked like he would make the Reds rotation again but elbow tenderness (sprained right ulnar collateral ligament) intervened and Lorenzen missed most of spring training and the first three months of the regular season.
If you remember, the Reds bullpen was a historic shambles in the first half of 2016. Raisel Iglesias returned from the DL in mid-June. Both he and Michael Lorenzen were assigned as relievers when shoulders and elbows permitted. Jason Linden talked with Lorenzen in Louisville about a potential role in the bullpen with the Reds and the pitcher was open to it. Lorenzen made his first appearance in 2016 on June 24 and his return, along with Iglesias, made a huge difference at the end of games.
It didn’t take long for the issue of Lorenzen’s role to resurface. Nick Carrington wrote “The Case for Michael Lorenzen: Starting Pitcher” on August 16. A month later, Matt Wilkes added to the discussion with “Health permitting, Iglesias and Lorenzen must get a chance to start.” As the 2016 season came to a conclusion, Nick Carrington mused about Lorenzen being used as a 100-inning reliever. I suggested giving Lorenzen a half-year of starts in 2017.
Michael Lorenzen had been spectacular (2.88 ERA / 3.10 xFIP / 2.75 SIERA) in his 35 games and 51 innings as a reliever in 2016. But most of the staff at Redleg Nation believed that Lorenzen should return to the rotation, that his newfound success would translate to a larger role. Nick Carrington published posts in January, May, June and July arguing that point of view. Clay Marshall drew an interesting parallel with Norm Charlton as a starter.
In 2017, the Reds had the opportunity during a year for sorting to try Lorenzen in a starting role. Instead, they wasted 67 opportunities on washed up journeymen who had no future with the club. Lorenzen had the best SIERA on the Reds staff in 2016, but the Reds learned the wrong lesson backward and kept Lorenzen in the bullpen all season.
“Maybe Michael Lorenzen was the best pitcher in the Reds organization last year (2016) 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 in that direction. 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.”
The low point in the Reds mismanagement of Lorenzen came in July 2017 when manager Bryan Price said Lorenzen would stay in the bullpen because he filled a need there, not because he couldn’t start. It was breathtaking that the club hadn’t looked at the starting rotation the previous few seasons as, oh, I don’t know, a need. (We’ve Got Lorenzen for That):
“To be clear, there’s no guarantee that Michael Lorenzen would succeed as a starting pitcher. But this is the year to find out. Right now. Instead of giving useless starts to Tim Adleman and Asher Wojciechowski. Even instead of Scott Feldman. Find out now. Find out about Stephenson and Reed. And Michael Lorenzen. … The myopia over Michael Lorenzen’s role is a throwback to sluggish and failed decision-making. Putting off consideration of Lorenzen’s role to next year smacks of dinosaurs plodding away to extinction.”
Lorenzen had pitched a full, healthy season in 2017. His numbers (4.45 ERA / 3.89 xFIP / 3.84 SIERA) over 70 games and 83 innings weren’t as sparkling as 2016. But those ERA estimators were better than league average. Lorenzen was still developing as a pitcher.
2018 and Beyond
The debate over how best to use Michael Lorenzen didn’t stop. Most of us again felt Lorenzen should get a shot at the 2018 rotation. The Reds did let him start a few games in spring training. But Lorenzen’s health (right shoulder strain) intervened and he began the year on the disabled list, returning to the active roster on May 23. By then, he was consigned back to the bullpen. I mentioned his fit in the role of a variation on Tampa Bay’s Opener, starting games pitching one time through the opposing lineup. While Lorenzen’s ERA this year (3.21) is excellent, other indicators point the other direction (4.43 xFIP, 4.49 SIERA). Lorenzen’s strikeout rate has dropped off substantially (22.2% to 17.1%) as has his swing-and-miss rate (10.4% to 7.0%).
Adding to the controversy over Lorenzen’s pitching role was the re-emergence of his hitting prowess. Remember Lorenzen’s dramatic home run in 2016 (Chad Dotson) after returning from the bereavement list from the loss of his father? In 2018, he’s hit 4 home runs and a double in 28 plate appearances. Lorenzen’s prodigious bat raised anew the question of whether the Reds should give him practice and playing time in centerfield, where he was regarded as a plus-defender in college. Nick Carrington wrote 2500 words on the idea of Lorenzen as position player in July and concluded that using Lorenzen as a starting pitcher would best utilize his talents and athleticism.
Jim Walker has already started the drumbeat for Lorenzen to pitch in the 2019 rotation.
Michael Lorenzen has drawn a tough assignment tonight, facing the big-bat Brewers in their home park and still in contention. It’s the same team Lorenzen debuted against in 2015. And the team Lorenzen is playing for seems to have quit for the year. The really great news is that Lorenzen will be with the Reds for at least three more seasons, if they don’t trade him. He can’t become a free agent until 2022. There’s still time to take advantage of his athleticism, skills and commitment.
The truth is, we don’t know how 26-year-old Michael Lorenzen will do in a starter role. He’s nowhere near the same pitcher he was in 2015, the last time he started. But there are indications he also isn’t the same guy as the 2016 shutdown reliever.
That’s the broader point, isn’t it?
Over three years the Cincinnati Reds haven’t given Michael Lorenzen a single start to find out.
But tonight, he finally has a chance. Lorenzen has thrown 60+ pitches twice this year, his limit could be 75 tonight. That’s 4 or 5 innings, depending on how he does. Maybe he’ll get a couple other starts in this dismal season’s last days to create an impression heading into 2019.
Better than never, I suppose. But this opportunity is long overdue.
So, yes, I’ll be watching tonight. And cheering like crazy for Michael Lorenzen on every pitch and at bat.
Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.