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Could Michael Lorenzen be a two-way player?

Lorenzen was a legit hitting prospect, but he’s still making the most of the rare plate appearances he gets. Should there be more?

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In recent weeks, one of the more interesting stories around Major League Baseball has to do with Reds reliever Michael Lorenzen, and it has nothing to do with his pitching. On the other side of ball, Lorenzen is doing what you call “hitting dingers.” Through his first seven plate appearances of the season, he has hit three balls over the fence. No other pitcher in baseball has done that more than once, giving him 25% of pitcher home runs this year.

Part of this shouldn’t come as a surprise though, as Lorenzen has been a natural hitter for most of his baseball career. In high school he was a two-way player, with actually more of a focus on hitting. Once he reached the college level at Cal State Fullerton, he initially was a full-time hitter. During his freshman season, he slashed an impressive .350/.431/.489 through 46 games, not appearing in a single one as a pitcher.

He returned to the mound his sophomore season, though, and the results were impressive, posting a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings as the team’s closer. Even with this, he still received more of a look in the batters box, slashing .297/.353/.435 in 57 games. Come junior year, Lorenzen had developed into a two-way star, posting another dominant season as Cal State Fullerton’s closer while turning in a career-year at the plate, posting a .335/.412/.515 line in a career-high 61 games.

With this there was definitely a case for Lorenzen to embark on a professional baseball career as a hitter. As a matter of fact, most pre-draft analysis had him as an outfielder.

“With a Ryan Braun like body type, Lorenzen can flat out play center field, covering gap-to-gap extremely well with a plus arm. He does have some gap power at the plate and he runs well, though he’s better underway. The question is if he’ll hit enough at the next level. He does throw mid-to-upper 90s fastballs as Fullerton’s closer and that could be an ‘if all else fails’ backup plan.”

Some teams scouting him preferred him on the mound though.

“Lorenzen could fall back on pitching with velocity that could project a fastball as a 70 and a slider that could be an out pitch. In other words, he’s a closer type. Some scouts prefer him in that role and how that all balances out will determine where he slots on draft day.”

Coming out of a college, it was totally feasible that Lorenzen could have a successful career as a centerfielder, showing the ability to hit and play at a premium position. Though he somewhat lacked power in his college days (career .154 ISO), he showed plus-plate skills, striking out in 15.1 percent of plate appearances.

After the Reds drafted Lorenzen in the first round of the 2013 draft, they went against most of the consensus, opting to develop him into a starting pitcher. He didn’t even get a look as a two-way player, something we’re seeing more often today with players such as Shohei Ohtani and Brendan McKay.

Every inning Lorenzen played in his minor league career was on the pitcher’s mound, while also only receiving 50 plate appearances (in which he hit .175/.250/.325 with one home run) in three-plus minor league seasons. He struck out in 22 percent of those plate appearances, while only walking in six percent of them. It seemed a lack of focus as a hitter had hampered his bat.

Lorenzen had a quick climb up the minor league ladder as a starter, making his big league debut in less than two years after the day he was drafted. He appeared in 27 games with the Reds in 2015, 21 of them starts, additionally receiving 41 plate appearances. His rookie season didn’t show any eye-popping results from the slab to the batters box, though he did still manage to hit considerably better than the average major league pitcher.

2015 Michael Lorenzen vs 2015 Average Pitcher

Year Player AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
Year Player AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
2015 Michael Lorenzen 0.250 0.270 0.306 0.056 55
2015 Average Pitcher 0.111 0.142 0.144 0.032 -25

With the Reds transitioning Lorenzen to more of a relief role in 2016, he only received five plate appearances at the major league level. One of those five plate appearances saw him hit his major league home run, though.

In 2017, Lorenzen had basically became a full-time reliever, so the opportunity to hit had become rare. He did step up to the plate 12 times last season though, smacking two hits, one of them a home run.

This season has seen the Reds more willing to utilize the hitting abilities of Lorenzen more. He’s pitched in 20 games total, seeing seven plate appearances, and even getting the opportunity to pinch-hit. He’s made the most of them though, going 4-for-6 with three home runs.

A career 120 wRC+ hitter through 65 plate appearances, by just looking at the surface, it might be worth asking the question if the Reds should start looking at a two-way player possibility for Lorenzen. Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan made a case for this last year.

“It’s not like the Reds are going to tell Lorenzen to go play the field. That would be far too dangerous and far too stupid. He’s most valuable to them as a quality arm for important eighth and ninth innings. I just don’t know how Lorenzen doesn’t pick up more pinch-hitting — or regular-hitting — opportunities, given how thin that bench looks, and given what just happened. The stakes won’t even be that high, and I don’t know what there would be to lose. Lorenzen gives Price an extra toy, and although I get that managers always want to be conservative, the idea has been planted. It’s sprouting. Lorenzen got a chance to pinch-hit in the first place. That resulted in the very best possible outcome. So there are going to be more of these plate appearances, even if only on days when Lorenzen won’t pitch.”

Most of this is held up by a bonkers 55.6 percent career HR/FB-rate. In other words, good things happen often if he can get a ball in the air.

Comparing Michael Lorenzen to the crowd

Player Hard% Soft% Fly Ball Hard% Fly Ball Soft% HR/FB
Player Hard% Soft% Fly Ball Hard% Fly Ball Soft% HR/FB
Michael Lorenzen 35.70% 16.70% 66.70% 0.00% 55.60%
Average Pitcher 17.90% 31.20% 25.40% 29.80% 5.40%
Average Hitter 35.60% 18.10% 37.80% 19.70% 12.60%
FanGraphs

And just for fun, I took every player that his hit at least nine fly balls since 2002 (Michael Lorenzen has nine career fly balls hit) and sorted them by fly ball wOBA. Lorenzen was first my a large margin. He also led in fly ball hard-hit% among a group of 2,000+ players (small sample size, I know). Seeing this in a larger sample size from Lorenzen would definitely be interesting.

Top 20 Fly Ball wOBA since 2002

Name PA Fly Ball wOBA
Name PA Fly Ball wOBA
Michael Lorenzen 9 1.074
Christian Walker 11 0.853
Calvin Pickering 29 0.812
Franchy Cordero 40 0.747
Franmil Reyes 18 0.729
Aaron Judge 238 0.725
Joey Butler 36 0.717
Juan Soto 31 0.688
Randy Ruiz 54 0.687
Tyler O'Neill 9 0.680
Brent Clevlen 12 0.673
Ryan Howard 1480 0.670
Rick Short 10 0.654
Peter O'Brien 20 0.651
Jarrett Parker 71 0.648
Micah Owings 45 0.645
Jim Thome 1189 0.644
Derek Fisher 30 0.644
Shohei Ohtani 23 0.641
Daniel Hudson 12 0.640
Minimum nine plate appearances FanGraphs

Looking deeper though, the short answer to this is probably no. So far in his career (small sample size), Lorenzen has managed to be a very above-average hitter. Most of his offensive value has been supplied by home runs, but he still has put a 32.3 percent K-rate and 1.5 percent BB-rate, good for a mere 0.05 BB/K ratio. Putting up a 120 wRC+ with these peripherals makes him an insane outlier.

Since 2002, minimum 50 plate appearances
FanGraphs

Fitting our narrative, that farthest-left bar is Michael Lorenzen. For more perspective, the average wRC+ for a hitter with a 0.05 BB/K rate or lower is -11, or a .145/.161/.186 line. He’s a major outlier.

There’s no blame though, as this is guy who went from an everyday college hitter to a pitcher that received a handful of plate appearances a year. Major rust will come with that. You also can’t help wondering what kind of hitting career he would have had if he focused on hitting throughout his development.