Cincinnati Reds: The growing importance of Michael Lorenzen

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 15: Michael Lorenzen #21 of the Cincinnati Reds gets ready in the batters box against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 15, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 15: Michael Lorenzen #21 of the Cincinnati Reds gets ready in the batters box against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 15, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

Why Cincinnati Reds RP turned OF Michael Lorenzen could revolutionize baseball.

Despite the trend towards larger home runs, the future of the designated hitter remains in question due to the effective hitting skills of current pitchers. Sharing his unique useful utility with perennial MVP candidate Shohei Ohtani, Cincinnati Reds right-handed relief pitcher and outfielder Michael Lorenzen’s growing popularity foreshadows a new age in baseball.

The debate over a universal designated hitter has existed for decades with many examples like Frank Thomas and David Ortiz showing the position’s great value, but with hard-hitting pitchers making a comeback, questions remain over the future of the position.

With the peculiar circumstances surrounding the 2020 season, Major League Baseball has elected to implement a universal D.H. for the shortened season, but this leaves no guarantee of a universal D.H. in future full-length seasons.

Let’s face the facts, a pitcher hitting is exciting. How many times has the video of Bartolo Colon’s 2016 home run at Petco Park circled through your sports social media feed?

There is no doubt that National League pitchers come across a generally easy out at the end of the order, which makes the case for the argument that there should be uniformity between the two leagues.

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American League pitchers are forced to face strong hitters throughout the lineup, one of whom has virtually no need to focus any amount of his practice time on anything besides bashing gargantuan dingers.

A couple of factors foreshadow a trend away from favoritism for the D.H. which could keep the number nine spot in the batting order reserved for the man on the hill.

A main factor of the debate over “New Baseball” and “Classic Baseball” revolves around the game’s new centering on home runs. Since the steroid era of frequent huge home runs, viewing of baseball games has increased exponentially and M.L.B. has found worldwide popularity.

Fans of classic baseball who might have stayed for every inning of the 1991 1-0 10-inning World Series deciding game would argue that the dependence on big home runs and emphatic strikeouts of today’s game are straying from the true roots of baseball’s popularity.

If that continuous trope for classic baseball can gain traction once again, then players like Lorenzen, who enjoy hitting, will be safe from a life of imprisonment in the bullpen.

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Last year, fellow pitcher-hitter Ohtani batted 0.286 with 62 runs batted in and 18 home runs, but his situation is different from Lorenzen. Ohtani is an A.L. pitcher, which means that he does not hit in the everyday lineup. Because of his batting prowess, his Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim decided to let him double as a D.H. in games in which he is not pitching.

Lorenzen does not have that option as he is in the N.L. The Cincinnati Reds elected to let Lorenzen play in the outfield in select games during 2019 and the experiment paid off. In only 48 at-bats, he batted 0.208 with six R.B.I.s and one home run.

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While that does not sound too impressive, he had a short 48 at-bat window for his work. In a typical season, an average hitter might bat around 550 times.

Assuming his batting skill does not deviate, if he had 550 at-bats in 2019, Lorenzen would have likely recorded about 115 hits with roughly 12 home runs and 69 R.B.I.s.

Those stats would put him at 136th in hits, 211th in home runs, and 103rd in R.B.I.s. These are not M.V.P. numbers by any standard, but they are above average.

In 2019, he also timed his work well:

In an April 14 home game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Lorenzen started a four-run game-tying rally with an R.B.I. double.

In an August 17 home game against St. Louis, Lorenzen went two for two and scored in the 6-1 win.

In a September 4 home game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Lorenzen cranked a two-out two-run home run to extend the Reds’ close one-run lead to three runs.

Four days later at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Lorenzen filled in to pinch-hit with one out in the bottom of the ninth and he sliced a walk-off double to win 4-3.

Additionally, until the September 4 game against Philly, he hit 0.353.

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Lorenzen also took some reps in the outfield; he committed zero errors in 2019 with a 1.000 fielding percentage. He also recorded 27 putouts and one assist in 28 chances.

The importance of dual-talented N.L. players rests with the relationship to the D.H. If more pitchers can grow into a valuable lineup spot, the idea of a universal D.H. might stay behind in 2020.

The idea of more dual-talented players sounds a little far fetched, but Lorenzen is not the only one in Cincinnati.

Right-handed pitching prospect Hunter Greene spent the 2017 season training as a pitcher and a batter. Due to the universal D.H. being a staple in Minor League Baseball, Greene made the switch to solely pitching in 2018, but he is on the fast-track for the Major Leagues where he will be able to hit, once again.

Now, Greene spent 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery and will most likely not be a part of the 2020 60-man roster, but the 20-year old has time before he has to step up to the level of Lorenzen and Ohtani.

Apart from these three, big names like Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Greinke routinely prove their worth in the batter’s box.

The future of the D.H. remains fairly stable and there is little doubt that it will stay in the A.L., but the repeated efforts to fit the position into the N.L. could be stymied thanks in large part to the Reds’ reliever.

Conversely, baseball is chock full of terrible-hitting positioned players. Take San Francisco Giants’ outfielder Billy Hamilton for an example. In 2019, Hamilton split his season between the Kansas City Royals and the Atlanta Braves.

He batted a dismal 0.218, drove home 15 runs, and hit a whopping zero home runs in 316 at-bats. Despite his poor performance at the plate, he committed zero errors, earned a 1.000 fielding percentage, and recorded a 1.4 Wins Above Replacement rating. He also completed 217 putouts and three assists in 220 chances.

From 2015 to 2017, Hamilton and Lorenzen were teammates for Cincinnati. During that time, Lorenzen batted 0.208 with eight R.B.I.s and two home runs in 53 at-bats. Hamilton batted 0.244 with 83 R.B.I.s and 11 home runs in 1,405 at-bats.

Assuming Lorenzen’s batting skill stays constant, if he had 1,405 at-bats in those three years, he would have earned about 292 hits with roughly 53 home runs and around 212 R.B.I.s—a little bit better than Hamilton’s meager numbers.

Chances are that if given the option, the Cincinnati Reds might have elected to put Lorenzen in the batting order in place of Hamilton, but they would have kept Hamilton in the field as a sort of “Designated Fielder” or a “D.F.” for short.

With the growing importance of players like Lorenzen in the debate over the universal D.H., the Hamilton example might point to a trend in the opposite direction. Maybe the D.H. (and D.F.) should be optional with pitchers like Lorenzen, Ohtani, and Greene in the game.

Like the D.H., where a spot in the lineup usually reserved for the pitcher would go to a solid-hitting positioned player, the D.F. would function essentially as a D.H. where instead of the pitcher not batting, another positioned player would not hit.

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This idea is not as far fetched as it might seem as this is already a rule at some levels of softball. The position is called a “Flex,” not a D.F., but D.F. has a more Major League-sounding ring to it.