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The Reds Are Refining the Optimal Approach for a Two-Way Player

Michael Lorenzen isn’t a star like Shohei Ohtani, but Cincinnati’s September experiment is showing that as an all-around capable pitcher, hitter, and fielder, he’s ideally suited to maintain multiway play

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The problem for prospective two-way baseball players is that the whole situation requires a delicate balance. Do one task too well, like Shohei Ohtani or Babe Ruth, or too poorly, like former pitching prospect and failed shortstop Casey Kelly, and you might prove more valuable as a specialist. Do both tasks too poorly, and you won’t be a viable MLB option at all. Two-way play necessitates a Goldilocks approach. And the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen might be just right for the job.

In the shadow of Ohtani’s celebrated MLB debut last season, Lorenzen’s 2018 season was little noticed outside niche baseball circles. But the right-hander’s success on both sides—a 3.11 ERA in 81 innings; a 1.043 OPS with four home runs in 34 plate appearances—presaged greater two-way experimentation in 2019.

The now-27-year-old was a two-way force in college, but after the Reds selected him 38th overall in the 2013 draft, he converted to one of them full time, as most two-way amateurs are wont to do in the professional ranks. With Cincinnati, Lorenzen appeared in a total of just one defensive inning at a position other than pitcher, and that came in the ninth inning of a blowout loss last August, when he manned right field as a position player took the rubber.

Cincinnati began to use Lorenzen as an occasional pinch-hitter last year, though, and entering the 2019 season, the team opened another route to playing time for him, too. He moonlighted in the outfield during spring training, then dabbled as replacement outfielder, pinch-hitter, and pinch-runner throughout April while retaining his usual duties as a setup man. But then his two-way role largely dissipated: He batted just once in May, once in June, and twice in July, and through August 15, he had recorded just 12 plate appearances all season.

Since mid-August, however, as the Reds fell outside the playoff race for good, manager David Bell has reinvested in Lorenzen’s multipronged playing time. Almost every day now, he plays a different role than he did the day before; it’s clear that Cincinnati is using the remainder of yet another lost season to figure out the most effective means of deploying its unique player. And Lorenzen, most importantly, is proving himself up to the task in each of the three broad areas he’s asked to contribute.

Lorenzen As a Pitcher

Lorenzen’s arm is the reason he’s in the major leagues at all, yet his tools on the mound don’t stand out in an era of high-strikeout relief artists. This season is Lorenzen’s first with at least one strikeout per inning, but 79 other qualified relievers whiff batters at a higher rate.

Still, just because Lorenzen’s pitching peripherals don’t pop off the page doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful. Since 2016, when he moved to the bullpen, Lorenzen has the same ERA+ (128) as Ken Giles, and his diverse array of pitches—he throws three fastball variations and three off-speed or breaking pitches—allows him to manipulate opposing hitters even without triple-digit speed. (To be fair, the fact that Lorenzen’s 97 mph fastball no longer registers as extraordinary is as much a commentary on the sport’s changing velocity bands as on his own pitching outlook.)

Lorenzen has also been durable throughout his MLB career, as he’s one of just three relievers on a current streak of three consecutive seasons with 75-plus innings, and he’s effective enough that he’d be an MLB player without any two-way tools. He was, after all, for several seasons before this one.

Lorenzen As a Batter

Of the 657 players with at least 10 batted balls this year, Lorenzen ranks first—first!—in average exit velocity, at 96.6 miles per hour. Second place is Giancarlo Stanton; third is Aaron Judge. His sample size is laughably small, but even bucketing the past two seasons together places Lorenzen in the same range as hitting stars like Ohtani, Christian Yelich, Yordan Álvarez, and J.D. Martinez.

That statistic alone suggests Lorenzen’s potential at the plate. So do his more traditional batted ball results. He doesn’t have the best batting eye, but he hits for power: Eight of his 16 hits over the past two years have gone for extra bases (five homers and three doubles).

Over his whole MLB timeline, which folds in lesser batting seasons from the start of his career, Lorenzen still has a 98 OPS+, meaning he’s been a basically average hitter. His career line (.246/.289/.474) resembles that of players like Randal Grichuk, Hunter Renfroe, and Evan Gattis—other higher-power, lower-OBP sluggers who probably fit best on a good team as part of a platoon or as a pinch-hitter.

There is at least some evidence, moreover, that pitchers are already treating the hitter version of Lorenzen as a threat. Most pitchers pound the strike zone against their fellow hurlers; not so against Lorenzen. Just 41.1 percent of pitches against the two-way Red have been in the strike zone this year—the lowest such percentage for any pitcher (minimum 20 plate appearances), and substantially lower than the league average of 54.9 percent against pitchers at the plate.

In fact, that 41.1 percent rate would be the lowest in the major leagues, among players at any position, if Lorenzen had enough plate appearances to qualify for the wider league leaderboard. As the rest of that leaderboard shows, other batters who face such infrequent strikes are some of the league’s scariest sluggers.

Lowest In-Zone Pitch Rate, for Qualified Hitters Plus Michael Lorenzen

Player Zone Percentage
Player Zone Percentage
Michael Lorenzen 41.1
Pete Alonso 41.2
Javier Báez 41.4
Josh Bell 42.3
Christian Yelich 42.4
Nelson Cruz 42.7
Bryce Harper 42.9
Eric Hosmer 42.9

Lorenzen As a Fielder

Although based on an incredibly small sample, the most impressive facet of Lorenzen’s game might actually be his fielding, which also differentiates Lorenzen from Ohtani; the current Angel and former Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighter hasn’t played in the outfield since 2014. Lorenzen has made 23 appearances in the outfield this year—with 12 in center field and the remaining mixed between left and right—and both the numbers and eye test confirm his competence there.

If Lorenzen were an average fielder, he’d have expected to catch 82 percent of the balls hit in his direction this year, according to Statcast’s calculations based on factors like the distance and direction a defender needs to travel. Instead, Lorenzen has caught an astounding 93 percent—the 11-percentage-point difference between those two numbers is one of the best in the majors.

The skills undergirding Lorenzen’s defensive output shine just as brightly as the ultimate result. Lorenzen ranks in the top 15 percent of qualified runners in sprint speed, with a mark equivalent to that of Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, and just ahead of noted speedsters Dee Gordon and Jarrod Dyson. And his reaction times in the outfield have graded quite well too. That’s how he made this play, against the Phillies on September 5, look so easy, even though its catch probability was just 50 percent:

And this play, against the Mariners on September 12, which had a catch probability of 65 percent, though Lorenzen made it look like a no-doubter:

Lorenzen As a Multi-Use Player

Taken all together, Lorenzen’s distinct skills in every phase of the game could allow him to blossom as a unique sort of player in the modern game. Already, the Reds are using him unlike any player in decades. The last player to appear in at least 10 games as both a pitcher and center fielder in a single season was Hall of Famer Bob Lemon in 1946, when the then-rookie position player lost his job due to poor hitting. But Lemon is distinct from Lorenzen; the former transitioned to pitching midway through that season, after learning he could pitch well while playing games in the Navy during World War II, and returned to the outfield for just one more game in his MLB career.

Lorenzen won’t switch to being a full-time position player. He’s probably not a good enough hitter to do so, given that he’s hit fastballs much better than breaking balls and off-speed pitches, and that one reason opposing pitchers might dance outside the strike zone so often is Lorenzen’s proclivity for chasing such would-be balls. And with all of his non-pitching statistics, the samples are still so small that the underlying raw skills he’s displayed matter much more than the results for purposes of future projection. After one home run in early September, for instance, his OPS rose 245 points; after consecutive 0-for-3 showings last week, it dropped back down by 210 ticks.

But even if he shouldn’t start every day, the calculus changes when considering Lorenzen as a bench slugger who can also run and play every outfield position well, plus pitch. Jarrod Dyson is already a useful player; Jarrod Dyson with power and a history of success as a setup man would help a team in multifarious ways, and opens up a plethora of strategic considerations besides.

Moreover, while Lorenzen isn’t Ohtani at the plate, he doesn’t have to hit well enough to compare favorably to other designated hitters, as Ohtani does in the AL. Lorenzen just has to hit well enough to warrant a pinch-hitting or platoon role. In the National League in particular, with its pitcher at-bats and pinch-hitters and double switches, a player with Lorenzen’s across-the-board balance would provide more in-game permutational value than he would in the AL. The average NL team this year has used 1.7 pinch-hitters per game this season—more than three times the AL rate of 0.5.

Lorenzen has even pinch hit for a Cincinnati position player three times this season. On one such occasion earlier this month, he socked a walk-off double in the ninth inning after stepping in for lefty-hitting Josh VanMeter to gain the platoon advantage against southpaw T.J. McFarland. The last pitcher to pinch hit for a position player multiple times in a season was Ken Brett for the White Sox in 1976.

What this lack of recent precedent means, in any case, is that no player has enjoyed quite the opportunity of Lorenzen, who is an off-the-bench option simultaneously as a relief pitcher, pinch-hitter and runner, and replacement defender. Just this month, Lorenzen has appeared in the following combinations of positions:

  • three games as just a center fielder
  • two games as just a pitcher
  • two games as a pitcher and then, after throwing two innings apiece, a center fielder
  • two games as just a pinch-runner
  • one game as just a pinch-hitter
  • one game as a pinch-hitter and then a center fielder
  • one game as a pinch-hitter and then a left fielder

Whether Lorenzen proves himself a worthy hitter or fielder long-term is still, of course, an open question. That’s why Cincinnati’s September experimentation is so important, so that the Reds have a sense of what works for Lorenzen come next year. But the early returns are most encouraging—even his oh-fer days at the plate or coughed-up leads in relief, because the occasional stumble reinforces the perception that Lorenzen is pretty good at every facet of the game, instead of so great at one that he should focus all his energies on a singular skill.

As a potential two-way player, Lorenzen’s more ordinary abilities make him, ironically, strategically more interesting, and thus more extraordinary overall. Heck, there’s not even a term for the role he’s occupying at the moment; he’s more than a mere utility or superutility man. A superduper-utility man, maybe? The label fits. Lorenzen’s skills are superduper indeed.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference and Mike Petriello of MLB.com for research assistance. Stats through Sunday’s games.