Last night Michael Lorenzen started the game for the Cincinnati Reds in Milwaukee. It was his first start since the 2015 season when he was a rookie, struggling to find consistency in the rotation. In 2016 he went into the spring to battle for a job in the rotation, but he came up injured and missed most of the first half. When he returned, it was in the bullpen. And while there’s been talk of starting since, it never happened. Until last night.
Michael Lorenzen threw 4.0 innings against the Brewers. He allowed one hit, one walk, hit a batter, and was charged with an unearned run. Lorenzen struck out three batters and threw 52 pitches with 36 strikes. All-in-all, it was a successful return to the rotation.
There’s long been the question of whether or not Michael Lorenzen should return to the rotation. Part of that probably is based around just how poorly the Reds rotation has performed over the last handful of years. Since he’s moved to the bullpen he’s posted a 3.57 ERA in 204.1 innings. His walk rate in that span is 3.4 batters per-9 innings pitched. The strikeout rate is 7.9 batters per-9 innings pitched. This season both rates are worse than those, but his ERA is better – sitting at 3.03. He’s kept the baseball in the ballpark better this year, helping counter the low strikeout rate and increased walk rate.
When looking at how that would translate to the rotation, it’s fair to say that what we’ve seen in 2018 probably doesn’t. The strikeout and walk rates simply don’t project well if they stay where they currently are. But the strikeout rate the previous two seasons, which were 8.6 and 8.7 batters per-9 innings pitched. Those rates will absolutely play in the rotation, though it would be expected to see them dip a tad moving back to the rotation. It’s been the increase in the last two years with the walk rate that’s been the issue, though.
Honestly, it’s tough to say one way or the other if the pitching abilities would translate well or not. The 3-year reliever stretch says maybe he could be a solid-ish starter if he can repeat the peripherals he showed at the time. Whether or not they could be maintained while asking him to throw 100 pitches instead of 20-35 is a very different thing, though.
Of course, with Michael Lorenzen there’s more to what he does than just the pitching. The dude can hit. And for a pitcher he hits so well that it’s an actual difference maker. This isn’t a Mike Leake situation where a guy hit well for a pitcher, but was really riding on the coattails of one or two seasons where he actually hit (he has a career .507 OPS).
A starting pitcher will typically get about 60 plate appearances in a season. In terms of offensive value, dating back to 2014, Madison Bumgarner is the top hitter. In 2014 he hit .258/.286/.470 that season in 78 plate appearances. His offensive value, according to Fangraphs, was 1.2. For comparison, Michael Lorenzen in 2018, in just 30 plate appearances, has been worth 3.4. The bar is very low for pitchers because they just can’t hit. So the value for a pitcher who actually can is enormous, even when the sample size is small.
This is the aspect of Michael Lorenzen that is probably more intriguing to me than whether or not he can start or relieve. Even if we believe that Lorenzen can start, the odds are that he’s probably more likely a back end of the rotation starter based on what we know. Those 60-ish plate appearances would add to his value. But could the Reds manage to get Lorenzen 150 plate appearances as a pinch hitter and allowing him more chances to hit as a reliever who pitches more multi-inning games? And if so, how valuable would that be by comparison?
There’s a lot of guessing that goes into that decision. First, could he continue to hit well with more exposure? Second, what kind of difference on the mound would there be between a starter and a reliever? And does that value get negated with the bat? Does the flexibility with the bench also add value that’s not showing up directly in the numbers? They are all tough questions to answer. The Cincinnati Reds front office is going to have to figure that out. It’s certainly an interesting question to ask. For me, I’d prefer to see them continue to use him as a reliever and find more ways to use him as a pinch hitter than they have this season.