Recently, The Athletic published a poll of big league players on a variety of topics. It was mostly just an entertaining piece of light-hearted All-Star break content, but the final question in the poll reminded me of something I’ve been asking myself: Aside from Shohei Ohtani, which pitcher could make it as a full-time hitter? Top result: Michael Lorenzen (45%).
It’s no secret why his fellow players think so highly of Lorenzen’s hitting ability. This season, Lorenzen—who has a 2.30 ERA in 21 appearances on the mound—is hitting .400/.455/1.300 with three home runs in 12 plate appearances. One of those home runs was a pinch-hit grand slam a few weeks ago.
Lorenzen only has four hits this season, actually; as noted above, three of them were homers. The other hit was a single back in early June, but even that otherwise-forgettable single was a spectacular feat. The exit velocity as the ball came off Lorenzen’s bat, as measured by MLB’s Statcast system, was 116.5 miles per hour. That’s the highest exit velocity ever recorded for a pitcher. Even more fascinating: It’s the hardest hit ball ever recorded by any Reds hitter. Sure, MLB has been recording exit velocity for only the last four seasons, but Lorenzen hit that ball harder than any recorded by Joey Votto, Adam Duvall, Eugenio Suarez, or Scooter Gennett.
And it’s not like Lorenzen just learned how to hit this season. In his career, he’s hitting .254/.277/.524 with a 110 OPS+. That effectively means he’s been 10 percent better than a league average hitter at the plate over the course of his career (only 70 plate appearances, so all the usual caveats about small sample size apply). It is becoming increasingly clear that Lorenzen has an idea what he’s doing with a bat in his hands.
So let’s go back to that question I mentioned above, a question Reds management should be trying to answer as well. Could Michael Lorenzen be a full-time two-way player? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Things are changing around baseball. Angels fans have enjoyed watching Ohtani, the 24-year-old rookie from Japan, hammer baseballs at the plate while enjoying success on the mound. The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Brendan McKay out of Louisville with the fourth overall pick last year, and he’s both pitching and hitting in the minors for the Rays this season. So why not Lorenzen? He certainly has the pedigree.
In college at Cal State Fullerton, Lorenzen started in center field for three seasons, earning All-American honors each year. During his career, he hit .324/.394/.478, but really hit his stride during his junior (final) season. That year, he posted a slash line of .335/.412/.515 with 7 homers in 61 games, leading the team with 53 RBI.
As a result, Lorenzen’s draft stock—as an outfielder and hitter—soared. It’s illuminating to go back and look at his draft profile back in 2013, when the Reds drafted him with the 38th overall selection. As they do every year, MLB published in-depth looks at each of the top prospects in the days leading up to the 2013 draft. Lorenzen was listed 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.
Here’s another draft profile of Lorenzen from 2013:
Long limbs and a lean build put Lorenzen perfectly in that “projectable” mold. He currently covers ground well in center field but also has the arm to be an above average right fielder. His arm is his best asset, though he shows all five tools. His arm is a 70 on the scouting scale and someone who saw him on his best day may put an 80 on it. He can hit 98 off the mound, and there is a possibility that he ends up there.
Did you catch that? The fact that Lorenzen was a pitcher was almost an afterthought to many draft analysts. To be sure, he was an outstanding pitcher at Fullerton, though he didn’t pitch at all in his freshman season, and Cincinnati’s decision to limit him to pitching as a professional has paid dividends. But why stop there?
Lorenzen is 26 years old. He has proven he can pitch, emerging as one of the most important relievers in the Reds bullpen. In a small professional sample, he has shown he can hit, after emerging as a top hitting prospect out of one of the best college programs in the country. What do the Reds have to lose by trying Lorenzen as a two-way player?
For his part, he wants to do it, as he told the Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan last spring: “I don’t think I’m just a pitcher,” Lorenzen said. “I’m an all-around baseball player. One day it’d be sweet to be a two-way player. I’m not saying that’s something I can’t do. I really think that I can do that.”
Certainly, the odds are against him. It’s incredibly difficult to hit in the big leagues, and Lorenzen hasn’t been focused on his hitting for several years now. We run the risk of being tantalized by his short-term success, while forgetting that MLB pitchers are very good and will eventually adjust to a hitter who doesn’t have a ton of experience.
To their credit, the Reds have begun using Lorenzen as a pinch-hitter more. Management has even suggested that he might be able to play the outfield. But it’s time to take the next step. It’s time for Cincinnati to step firmly outside the box.
Teams around baseball are looking for ways to gain an edge. It’s not just the use of Ohtani and McKay. The Rays are experimenting with “bullpenning,” or starting a game with their relief pitchers. It’s a creative approach that could really benefit the early adopters. As a small(ish) market club, the Reds must not fall into the trap of doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” That’s a recipe for getting the same result they’ve gotten recently.
It’s possible that the Reds have a special asset here, a player who can do things almost no one else in baseball can do. They should be looking for ways to maximize that value to the club, to leverage Lorenzen’s unique talents in order to gain an advantage on nearly every other club.
And I’m not talking about using him as a pinch-hitter once a week. That’s an easy call. I’m talking about getting truly creative. Let Lorenzen start on the mound once every five days, and play center field a couple of times in between. Or let him continue to relieve, but give him spot starts in the outfield. If he has to pitch in one of those games, bring him in from center field to the mound.
There are different ways to accomplish this, and the Reds should be actively engaged in discussions to figure out the best way to step far outside baseball convention and achieve something really special with Lorenzen. The team (probably) isn’t making the playoffs this year, so they should use this time to see if they can nurture a weapon that can be deployed next year, when they should be ready to join the pennant race.
To those who scoff and say that it could never work, I say: How do we know until the Reds give it a try? Then, after they figure things out with Lorenzen, well, it’ll be time to give it a try with Hunter Greene.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online.