After the 2014 season I began to work on my prospect rankings by collecting scouting reports from contacts around baseball for many of the Cincinnati Reds minor leaguers. Following a strong campaign with Double-A Pensacola Michael Lorenzen was going to rank highly. The question was, how high up the list would he be.
As reports began rolling in from my contacts, many were less enthusiastic than my own report, which read as this from the 2015 Prospect Guide:
Coming into the season there were big questions about how Michael Lorenzen would transition into a starting pitcher after having spent his college career as a center fielder and closer. Those questions were magnified after he struggled mightily in the Arizona Fall League as a starter in 2013. It turns out that the Reds knew exactly what they were doing. The right hander went to Double-A and posted a 3.13 ERA in 120.2 innings despite no prior starting experience. When July began the team started to cut down on his innings, only throwing five innings twice after July 1st. Lorenzen’s bread and butter pitch was his sinker that worked 91-95 MPH and would touch slightly higher at times. It helped generate a groundball rate of 55% on the season, which also helped limit his home runs allowed. He mixed in a slider, curveball and change up behind the fastball. The slider is his second best offering, an above-average pitch right now that he throws in the low-to-mid 80’s. The curveball wasn’t a pitch he threw at the start of the season but began to work into his arsenal around mid-season. It’s a solid pitch that he is confident in hrowing. He also mixes in a change up that has improved in the last year, showing good movement and tumbling action. While Lorenzen didn’t miss a bunch of bats in the 2014 season he should develop into more of a strikeout pitcher than he was as he continues to get more time on the mound. With big groundball rates, four pitches, good size and control he should develop into a quality big league starting pitcher and could be ready as soon as late 2015.
Most of the reports that came back felt that Michael Lorenzen was a closer, not a starter. I felt that as long as his arm could handle the workload, which was still in doubt at that point given his past history of never starting, that he had the stuff to be a starting pitcher. One report I received back was very positive though. The scout covered the Reds organization for his team (some organizations assign scouts to regions of the country rather than organizations) and he felt that Lorenzen was easily the best starting pitching prospect that the team had. I wound up ranking him second among the pitchers, so our views weren’t too far off. We, however, were in the minority with that belief – at least from those that I talked with.
In 2015 he began the year in Triple-A with the Louisville Bats. Lorenzen would make three starts before being called up to Cincinnati. Things went well, initially, although there was plenty reason to believe it wouldn’t continue. In his first eight starts he posted a 3.29 ERA in 38.1 innings. The ERA was nice and shiny. However, he also had 22 walks and 23 strikeouts in that span. That’s wasn’t good at all and suggested he was going to face some tough times ahead if he didn’t improve those ratios. Things turned around quickly, but not in a good way. In the next 11 starts he posted a 7.05 ERA in 52.1 innings with 31 walks and 42 strikeouts. The strikeout rate did improve, but he was still walking too many hitters and his home run rate was quite high. The Reds sent him back to Triple-A for the second half of August before recalling him on the 31st. He finished out the year in the big leagues.
The overall numbers weren’t great. The right hander posted a 5.40 ERA with a walk rate of 11.1% and a strikeout rate of 16.1%. It was his first year in the big leagues and many guys take time to adjust and figure things out. With Michael Lorenzen, and his lack of pitching, the learning curve was probably even higher.
Entering 2016 the Reds plan was to once again have Michael Lorenzen in the rotation. The first game went well – he was topping out at 99 MPH. Unfortunately he then came down with mono and it took him right out of the rotation, and baseball, for several months. He was sent on a rehab assignment on June 13th and spent a week with the Louisville Bats. He was, however, working out of the bullpen. Lorenzen was dominant, throwing a shutout inning in each of his four games with no walks and seven strikeouts.
After that week Michael Lorenzen rejoined the Cincinnati Reds and from that point forward, along with Raisel Iglesias, he helped stabilize what had been an atrocious bullpen up to that point. In 50.0 innings he posted a 2.88 ERA with 13 walks and 48 strikeouts. The bullpen certainly went much better than the rotation did for the righty. Let’s dive into the stats for a quick comparison:
Outside of innings, everything was significantly better across the board. Strikeouts were up, and walks were down – both by big amounts. Home runs were also down.
So, what was behind such improvement and can he actually get better than he was in 2016?
He was able to get ahead in far more counts than the previous season.
In 2016 Michael Lorenzen got ahead of hitters more often. Pitchers that are ahead in the count, or even in the count, perform significantly better. Of course, it wasn’t just getting ahead in counts more often, but his stuff also took a step forward.
All of his pitches were thrown harder in the 2016 season. The move to the bullpen shouldn’t make that surprising. In both roles, Lorenzen showed elite velocity. Another big thing that that really jumped out was pitch usage.
Less fastballs, changes ups and sliders. More cutters. It worked and it worked well. Heading over to Fangraphs we can look at just how valuable each pitch was during the 2016 season. His fastball went from a pitch that was absolutely crushed in 2015 to an above-average offering in 2016. The slider went from a slightly above-average pitch to a pitch that got crushed. The cutter was the big difference. Among relievers it was the 3rd best cutter (per 100 pitches thrown) in baseball – trailing only Mike Montgomery and George Kontos.
Where things get a little more interesting is when we separate the two and four-seam fastballs for Lorenze in 2016 (he threw only a four-seamer in 2015). The four-seam fastball was a below-average pitch when it came to the results in the season. The two-seamer, however, was one of the best pitches in baseball among relievers.
As we saw above, he threw his fastball 47.9% of the time in 2016. That’s accounting for both versions of the pitch. Lorenzen threw the two-seamer more than the four-seamer, 27.7% to 20.2% of the time. Given that the two-seamer was so successful, and the four-seamer was actually a below-average offering, could going with the two-seamer even more improve his results?
That’s certainly possible. But, we can’t just say yes based on what happened in 2016. Perhaps the pitch, and other pitches played out the way that they did because of how they were all used. Throwing even more two-seamers may lead to being a tad more predictable and make the pitch play down some from where it was at in 2016. Of course, it could also simply play out the same, and would take him to that next level. His two-seamer got more swings and misses (on a rate basis) by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio versus his four-seam fastball. If that rate of could hold true and he moved further from the four-seam fastball (and the other pitches also played the same as they did in 2016), then it’s very likely he would see another big step forward in his results.