Since he was moved to the bullpen in 2016, Michael Lorenzen has continually stated his preference for starting. Minus a few end-of-season spot starts, however, he hasn’t received that opportunity. But with Anthony DeSclafani and Trevor Bauer heading elsewhere in free agency, Lorenzen may finally get his chance again in 2021.
As of now, the first three spots in the rotation likely belong to Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Tyler Mahle. Wade Miley probably gets the fourth spot, although it’s no guarantee with the competition behind him. Tejay Antone and Lorenzen appear to be the top contenders for the fifth spot (or to supplant Miley), with Jeff Hoffman and Jose De Leon also lingering. Lorenzen also entered 2018 spring training vying for a starting role and lost out. So, yes, we’ve seen this story before. But he’s once again in the mix, and it’s worth exploring whether he’d truly make a good starting pitcher — particularly in light of strides he’s made over the last two years.
Lorenzen was a center fielder and reliever in college. The Reds saw his potential as a pitcher and took him with the 38th overall pick in the 2013 draft with plans to move him to a starting role. He quickly moved through the minor leagues and he debuted in 2015 after making only six starts at Triple-A Louisville. Lorenzen made 27 appearances (21 starts) in his rookie season and largely struggled, posting a 5.40 ERA, 5.40 FIP, and 4.82 xFIP in 113.1 innings.
The plan was for Lorenzen to return to the rotation in 2016, but he suffered a partially torn UCL in spring training. Fortunately, Lorenzen avoided Tommy John surgery, but the Reds played it safe and moved him to the bullpen when he returned in June. He’s stayed there ever since, aside from three spot starts at the end of 2018 and two at the end of 2020.
Lorenzen has been a versatile and valuable reliever for the Reds, but he hasn’t become the elite pitcher his stuff indicates he could be. As a reliever, he has a 3.57 ERA, 3.95 FIP, and 4.02 xFIP in 315.1 innings. Despite throwing the fourth-most relief innings since 2016, he’s 60th in fWAR (2.7).
Why, then, is he a candidate to move back to the rotation full-time? It’s simple: his pitch repertoire.
Most relievers throw two or three pitches, focusing on their best ones because they only see hitters once per game. As Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson might put it: “Be great at what you’re good at.” If a pitcher isn’t seeing lineups multiple times, why bother with mediocre pitches? That philosophy has seen Amir Garrett focus on a slider-heavy approach and ditch his changeup. Lucas Sims abandoned his sinker and changeup to feature his high-spin four-seamer and breaking balls.
Lorenzen bucks that trend. Despite that fact he hasn’t been a regular starting pitcher in six years, he still throws six pitches. And they’re not six ho-hum pitches; most of them are quite effective. In 2020, he used four pitches at least 15% of the time — a four-seam fastball (33%), changeup (18%), cutter (18%), and slider (17%). He also mixes in a curveball and sinker at a combined 14% clip.
When he controlled it, Lorenzen’s four-seamer was nearly untouchable in 2020. It held hitters to a .221 xwOBA (league average: .345) while getting a career-best 35.2% whiff rate (22.6%). Early in the 2020 season, he cranked it up to 101 mph — and had a publicly stated goal to hit 103 — but lost some control as a result. After averaging 98.2 mph in three July appearances, he dialed the heater back following his rough start to the season, and a course correction followed.
Overall, it’s a pitch that’s shown significant improvement since 2019, when the Reds truly began adapting to modern analytics, biomechanics, and technology. Lorenzen always had the upper-90s velocity, but he hasn’t always missed bats with the heater. As he’s gradually added spin to the pitch and changed where he throws it, the results have followed.
The fastball’s spin rate now ranks in the 94th percentile, and Lorenzen is using that to his advantage by throwing it up in the zone more often. His velocity alone is hard for batters to catch up with. On top of that, his high spin rate keeps the ball from dropping like an average fastball would. The result: late swings underneath the ball.
Watch how the red in the heat maps gradually shift upward year over year:
Here’s what it looks like in action (with a cameo by that dude from Middletown):
The fastball may not put up such a ridiculously low xwOBA in a larger, full-season sample, but Lorenzen is unlocking its potential. He just needs to control it consistently and avoid overthrowing.
Lorenzen’s slider has made a resurgence. With worsening results, he dropped its usage rate to 9.8% in 2019 — this coming after a 2018 season in which its whiff rate fell to a career-worst 20.3%. Instead of scrapping it, Lorenzen revamped the pitch in 2020.
First, he didn’t throw it as hard, dropping its average velocity from 87.1 to 85.0 mph. Second, he got more vertical (3.2 inches above average) and horizontal movement (3.8 inches above average) than he had in his career by a healthy margin. For reference, he was at 1.3 and 1.6 inches above average, respectively, in 2019.
It’s clear to see the difference in the slider’s movement between 2019 (first pitch) and 2020 (second):
It should come as no surprise that his slider performed better than ever.
The slider became a dominant putaway pitch against right-handers, darting away from hitters with late break (he threw only four sliders against lefties). It was his pitch of choice in 40% of two-strike counts and accounted for strike three on 10 of his 19 strikeouts against righties on the season. When batters did put it into play, they averaged a meager 77.0 mph exit velocity.
So, Lorenzen can get righties out with a slider that darts away from them. What about lefties? That’s where his changeup, a pitch that darts away from left-handers, comes into play.
For his career, Lorenzen doesn’t have dramatic splits, but he’s performed better against right-handed hitters. Not a huge surprise for a right-handed pitcher. But after he struggled against lefties in 2018 (.357 xwOBA), Lorenzen needed to find a pitch that could reliably get outs. He set out to improve his changeup, and improve it he has.
Since 2019, he’s reversed course and been better against lefties, holding them to an elite .269 xwOBA. Few right-handed pitchers have been better against lefty hitters during that stretch; in fact, Lorenzen finds himself in head-turning company:
That’s, uh, pretty good.
Here’s a closer look at the steady improvement Lorenzen has made with the changeup.
Essentially, it went from a non-factor to one of his best three pitches. By lowering his arm slot and increasing its spin rate by about 300 rpm, Lorenzen has unlocked his changeup’s potential.
(Quick side note: Changeups typically have lower spin but can be successful at different rates. For instance, Devin Williams’ freakish changeup has a curveball-esque spin rate over 2,800 rpm, while Luis Castillo sits at 1,950.)
The changeup performed slightly worse 2020 but was still solidly above average. Notably, it still boasted an elite .170 xwOBA against lefties. Righties punished it for a .628 xwOBA in a tiny sample of 18 pitches. Lorenzen’s changeup is also his best ground-ball generator, boasting a 68.4% rate in 2020 and 53.7% in 2019. The pitch gives Lorenzen two legitimate putaway offerings, one for batters on each side of the plate.
Here’s what the changeup looks like in action:
Like the changeup, Lorenzen started developing the cutter to help his struggles against lefties. It’s become a frequent selection versus right-handers as well. He throws it with high spin, averaging 2,556 rpm in 2020, far above the league average of 2,385. He also, unsurprisingly, throws it significantly harder than average (92.6 mph vs. 88.2 mph).
It limits hard contact better than the average cutter but misses fewer bats and has below average movement. While it was a better pitch versus right-handers in 2017 and 2018, the script has flipped the last two seasons, performing far better versus left-handed hitters — against whom it was designed to get out.
In particular, Lorenzen has improved at getting the cutter in on lefties and jamming them. The first two years he threw the pitch, lefties hit it for an 87.2 mph average exit velocity and 52.6% ground-ball rate. The last two seasons: 80.9 mph and 74.5%.
Again, the heat maps paint a clear picture of improvement. Below, you can see Lorenzen’s cutter location from 2017 and ’18 on the left versus 2019 and ’20 on the right:
Lorenzen doesn’t throw the curve as much as he used to, but it’s as aesthetically pleasing as ever. Despite having 39th-percentile spin, it averaged 6.7 inches of vertical movement above average in 2020, a huge jump from 2.5 inches above average in 2019.
Although it has a beautiful 12-6 drop, it gets a roughly average whiff rate (33.3%). Breaking the trend of using secondary pitches that break away from hitters, Lorenzen turned to the curveball almost exclusively against left-handed batters in 2020 even though it’s performed better against righties throughout his career. He struggled to command it, and it had a worse-than-average .295 xwOBA against.
The sinker used to be Lorenzen’s primary pitch, but he’s moved away from it in favor of his four-seamer — as many pitchers have. This has cost him some grounders, but the transition away from the pitch has helped him miss more bats and become a more effective overall pitcher. In 2018, Lorenzen threw the pitch nearly 40% of the time and it had a dismal 10.0% whiff rate. Lorenzen consequently had the lowest strikeout rate of his career by a long shot (15.7%).
He cut down its usage by more than half in 2019 and nearly doubled his four-seam fastball use. That, plus the increase in changeups, resulted in his best career strikeout rate (24.8%). He wasn’t far behind that mark in 2020 (23.8%). He again decreased his sinker usage by half in 2020. He mostly uses the pitch against right-handers nowadays, trying to jam them inside as he does with the cutter against lefties. This has yielded mixed results — a .272 xwOBA in a larger sample from 2019 and a .580 xwOBA in 2020.
Lorenzen is a bit of an enigma. Despite having excellent stuff, he’s never tallied large strikeout numbers. Control issues also plague him at times. He carries a career 9.6% walk rate and walked a career-worst 11.6% of the batters he faced in 2020. Consequently, he’s never been a dominant reliever.
The strikeout increase over the last two seasons is promising, but he’s still at a roughly league-average rate for a reliever. Strikeouts typically drop when a pitcher moves from the bullpen to the rotation, which would — all things equal — probably put Lorenzen back in below average territory. What’s intriguing is that there’s clearly room for further improvement. He has not one, not two, but three pitches that miss bats at a high rate. In 2020, Lorenzen ranked in the 90th percentile in whiff rate. Elite territory. But his strikeout rate fell in just the 53rd percentile. Meh territory. Perhaps the strikeouts would come with better pitch sequencing or selection (that’s a post for another day). If he could get that strikeout rate on par with the whiff rate, we’re potentially looking at a breakout season for Lorenzen in 2021.
While his electrifying repertoire hasn’t resulted in gaudy strikeout numbers, it has helped him limit hard contact. In fact, he’s among the best pitchers in the game at doing so. Since 2016, Lorenzen has allowed the third-lowest average exit velocity (85.9 mph) and the 10th-lowest hard-hit rate (30.1%) among 181 qualified pitchers. Some other notable pitchers in the top-25 of both categories: Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Kenta Maeda, Kyle Hendricks, Jack Flaherty, Raisel Iglesias (remember him?), Zack Wheeler, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Even if Lorenzen’s strikeout rate drops in a starting role, this element could help him find success.
Frankly, it’s possible that throwing so many pitches has actually held Lorenzen back as a reliever to some degree. He may be more dominant if he limited his arsenal to a four-seamer, slider, and changeup. But his insistence on keeping so many pitches at his disposal has kept him in the starting conversation and could position him well to face lineups multiple times.
Whether Lorenzen is successful in his latest push to be a starter remains to be seen. It’s not often that a pitcher jumps back into a starting role after five seasons in the bullpen. There are obvious questions about his stamina, too. Yes, he has thrown the fourth-most pitches by any reliever since 2016, but he hasn’t been a full-time starter in six years. Can he reliably pitch into the fifth, sixth, or seventh innings? How many innings can he realistically throw in a season? Lorenzen is probably the most physically fit player on the team — but that doesn’t always equate to a healthy arm or effectiveness a second and third time through a lineup. Remember, he didn’t start in college and hurt his elbow after throwing more innings than he ever had in 2015.
That said, the stuff is tantalizing, and it’s only gotten better since Derek Johnson and Kyle Boddy came to town — the shaky start to 2020 notwithstanding. With at least one rotation spot up for grabs, it can’t hurt to give him one more shot at starting in what could be his final season in a Reds uniform.
Featured Image: Flickr