Michael Lorenzen Gets His Turn, and Other Two-Way Tales

This week, Michael Lorenzen put himself in the company of the Bambino, Abba Dabba, and The Caveman. In Wednesday night’s game between the Reds and Phillies in Cincinnati, the versatile 27-year-old became the first player since Babe Ruth to collect a win as a pitcher, hit a home run, and play the outfield in a single game, something Ruth did for the Yankees on June 13, 1921. On Thursday afternoon, Lorenzen drew the first start of his career in center field, thus becoming the first pitcher to make a start in the field in the game after netting a win since the Braves’ Jim Tobin (nicknamed Abba Dabba for reasons unclear) on July 29, 1943, and the first pitcher to start in the outfield since Don Robinson (nicknamed The Caveman for his physique) in 1984. As esoteric as this collection of achievements may be, it’s reason enough to examine the progress of Lorenzen and a few other potential two-way players whom I highlighted in late February.

In the top of the seventh inning of Wednesday’s game, manager David Bell called upon Lorenzen for his 66th appearance of the year, in the service of protecting a 5-4 lead. While Lorenzen served up a game-tying homer to Jay Bruce, the second batter he faced, Jose Iglesias’ solo homer off Jose Alvarez in the bottom of the frame put the Reds back on top. Lorenzen then threw a scoreless eighth, retiring Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and Jean Segura in order. In the bottom of the eighth, with two outs and one on against Blake Parker, he launched his first home run of the season and seventh of his career, a 100.7-mph, 387-foot shot that put the Reds up 8-5. When closer Raisel Iglesias entered for the ninth, Lorenzen moved to center field (his 18th appearance in the outfield this year), replacing rookie Brian O’Grady. He was a bystander as Iglesias set down the side in order, but he did vulture a win, his first of the season.

Lorenzen wasn’t exactly turning cartwheels when his accomplishment, as discovered by the Elias Sports Bureau, was relayed to him, but he did enjoy the recognition. Via MLB.com’s Alyson Footer:

“To me it’s just a funny little stat, like a baseball stat,” he said. “I’m not too into the statistics like that, but I know for a lot of people it means a lot. It’s cool for a lot of other people.

“I’m definitely honored to be a part of that. I wouldn’t be able to be a part of that if it wasn’t for David Bell being open-minded.”

After Lorenzen’s historic night, Bell used Thursday’s afternoon game against the Phillies to break new ground by giving Lorenzen his first major league start in center field, a situation abetted by Nick Senzel’s right shoulder soreness, which caused him to be scratched from Wednesday’s lineup. Per Footer and Elias, he became the first pitcher to start in the outfield since Robinson did so for the Pirates in the nightcap of a doubleheader on the final day of the season (he started the opener). Robinson, who spent 15 years pitching in the majors (1978-92) with a 109-106 record, 3.79 ERA, 3.65 FIP, and 20.1 WAR, was a good-hitting pitcher in his day, batting .231/.252/.330 with 13 homers, a 60 wRC+, and 4.8 WAR. According to Ryan Spaeder, Lorenzen was the first pitcher to make a start in the field in the game after recording a win since Tobin, whose other claims to fame include homering three times in a game on May 13, 1942 (he’s the only pitcher to do so) and pitching a no-hitter on April 27, 1944.

For the day — which ended when Cincinnati’s Phillip Ervin hit a walk-off homer in the 11th inning for a 4-3 win — Lorenzen went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout, dropping his season line to .300/.391/.500 (130 wRC+) in 23 PA. He made two putouts in the field, including a Statcast “4-Star” catch on a Segura fly ball:

The start was Lorenzen’s first in center field since 2013, when he was a junior at Cal State Fullerton. That year, he hit .333/.408/.518 with seven homers in 61 games, and also saved 19 games while posting a 1.99 ERA in 22.2 innings. Though considered draftable as an outfielder, concerns about his ability to hit for average led to his being favored as a pitcher, and the Reds chose him that year with a supplemental first-round pick.

Lorenzen reached the majors in 2015, and spent the bulk of his rookie season starting, but just three of his past 216 appearances have been in that capacity, all in 2018. In 45 total appearances last year, he threw 81 innings with a 3.11 ERA and 4.16 FIP, striking out a modest 15.7% while walking 9.9%. As a hitter, he batted a respectable-for-a-pitcher .250/.270/.306 in 41 plate appearances as a rookie, homered once apiece in 2016 and ’17 while making a combined total of 17 PA, and broke out to hit four homers (including a grand slam) last year in 34 PA while batting .290/.333/.710. Two of last year’s homers, and his 2017 dinger, came as a pinch-hitter, a capacity in which he had been used 22 times through 2018. Overall, he owns a .260/.300/500 line (107 wRC+) with seven homers in 115 career PA.

In spring training, Bell, in his first year managing the Reds, helped craft a plan to prepare Lorenzen as a two-way player, though the returns until recently had been fairly minimal due in part to the Reds’ overcrowded outfield. He’s pinch-hit four times, going 0-for-3 with a walk; twice he took over on the mound, and once in left field. He’s pinch-run 12 times, going 3-for-3 in stolen bases and scoring twice; three times he remained in the game as an outfielder. Five times he’s moved from the mound to an outfield position, but Wednesday night was the first one of those in which he got to swing the bat. Nine times he’s entered as an outfielder in the seventh inning or later; only twice has he taken a plate appearance in that context, and only once did he move to the mound. As an outfielder, he’s made eight putouts without an assist or error. As a batter, his 23 PA are still shy of last year’s 34; until Thursday, he’d made two in a game just twice – getting on base all four times, ahem.

If Lorenzen hasn’t exactly been overworked as a position player — something Bell chalked up to “the limitations of my thinking. It’s more about that than him limiting himself for sure” — the Reds have kept him busy as a reliever; his 66 appearances ranks fifth in the NL. In 74 innings, he’s pitched to a 3.04 ERA and 3.91 FIP, with his strikeout and walk rates (24.2% and 8.7%, respectively) both improved relative to last year; his strikeout-to-walk differential has nearly tripled, from 5.8% to 15.5%. Pitching-wise, he’s been worth 0.8 WAR; his combined total of 1.0 may not mark him as the second coming of Shohei Ohtani (3.7 WAR last year) but is tied for 10th on the team. He’s been a useful player, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get more opportunities like this week’s over the remainder of the season.

Checking in on the other players I profiled in February alongside Lorenzen, the only one whose experiment has borne any major league fruit is the Angels’ Jared Walsh. The 25-year-old lefty, who pulled double duty at the University of Georgia, made eight minor league relief appearances last year in addition to his outfield and first base duties, plus another 13 this year. He’s gotten his feet wet in the majors in both capacities, hitting .231/.268/.282 in 41 PA across 11 appearances (nine starts) as a first baseman plus five pinch-hitting appearances. He’s pitched four times, allowing three hits and one run in 4.1 innings, with four strikeouts but an unsightly five walks. Only once has he moved from first base to the mound, that for the ninth inning of a July 19 game against the Mariners in which the Angels were losing 10-0. Such a move costs a team its designated hitter, which in this case — yup — just happened to be Ohtani, whose September 2018 Tommy John surgery has prevented him from pitching this year, though he recently began incorporating breaking pitches (but not splitters) into his bullpen sessions.

Via Eric Longehangen, the reports on Walsh’s power (36 homers in 454 PA at Triple-A Salt Lake City) are positive. Per a source, his minor league exit velocities are actually higher than his 92.3 mph average in the majors, which is impressive if true. The concern is whether he can make consistent contact, particularly given his a 41.4% strikeout rate in his 41 major league PA. As a pitcher, his fastball has averaged a modest 90.3 mph according to Pitch Info, with a curve (22.2%) and change-up (9.9%) mixed in, but he hasn’t shown himself to be more than a mop-up guy who can give the actual bullpen a breather. Still, as a bonus from a lefty bench bat with power, it could make for an interesting niche.

The Angels’ other projects in this realm have made some progress, though their numbers aren’t exactly eye-opening. Infielder Kaleb Cowart, a 27-year-old former first-round pick who owns a career 45 wRC+ in 380 PA in the majors, had a busy offseason in which he was claimed on waivers by the Mariners last December, then by the Tigers in January, and finally the Angels again in February (the day after my piece ran). Resuming the Halos’ plan to let him pitch as well as hit, the righty has made 17 appearances split between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Salt Lake City, and has been thumped for a 10.19 ERA with 16 walks and 16 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. A May 27 article in the Salt Lake Tribute noted that he had thrown 98 mph, but a scouting report that arrived via Longenhagen had him sitting 93 mph in August, alongside an 88-90 mph hard cutter that has potential as a secondary pitch but has yet to yield great results. A switch-hitter at the plate, he’s put up a modest .276/.330/.433 line in 359 PA split between the two levels, that while playing all four infield spots (usually third base) plus right field and DH. Call him a superduperutilityman of limited utility.

At Salt Lake, Cowart crossed paths briefly with lefty outfielder/pitcher Bo Way, a 27-year-old former seventh-round pick who has hit .255/.318/.391 in 391 PA split between Double-A and Triple A and pitched to a 4.73 ERA in 14 appearances totaling 13.1 innings, with 12 strikeouts and eight walks. Longenhagen’s scout had him averaging around 88 mph with his fastball, and didn’t see a great deal of potential.

On the other hand, (literally), righty William Holmes (formerly William English), a 2018 fifth-round pick who doesn’t turn 19 until December 22, has shown enough promise on the mound to merit a spot on THE BOARD, a 40 Future Value prospect who’s ranked 27th in the system. After missing the first half of the summer with an unspecified injury, he’s been on a very regimented two-way program, DHing twice a week and pitching once. He’s hit .326/.431/.488 in 51 PA for the team’s Arizona League and Pioneer League affiliates, a big step up from last year’s .220/.325/.260 in 117 PA as a DH in the AZL. Longenhagen reports that Holmes is raw and has struggled with pitch timing and recognition, noting that his progress may be slow given his dual focus but could be accelerated by a hitting-only focus if he reaches innings limits. On the mound, building up from 15-20 pitches to 50-60 per outing, he’s posted a 5.48 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 18 walks in 21.1 innings spread over eight appearances, seven of them starts. He’s started seven times, the last of which was a four-inning, seven-strikeout performance in his Orem mound debut on August 31. Longenhagen, who witnessed his final Arizona start, came away impressed, reporting that his fastball ranged from 92-95 mph, and he flashed a plus changeup and above-average breaking ball. Of this group, he’s clearly the one to watch.

As for the other player I profiled, Matt Davidson, the 28-year-old corner infielder, who last year hit .228/.319/.419 with 20 homers for the White Sox while throwing three scoreless innings as well, spent the entire season at the Rangers’ Triple-A Nashville affiliate. He bashed 33 homers while hitting .264/.339/.527 but has made just one appearance on the mound, throwing a scoreless inning at the tail end of a 16-1 loss to the Oklahoma City Dodgers (featuring Dustin May, Will Smith, and Gavin Lux) on July 23. Can’t win ’em all.

None of these players, Lorenzen included, carries the promise of 2017 first-round picks Hunter Greene (who’s missed this year due to Tommy John surgery) or Brendan McKay (who since June 29 has made eight starts of variable quality for the Rays and has DH’d twice), but the willingness of the players and their teams to innovate still makes for an intriguing trend. It may be a short-lived one, however. Among the rule changes for 2020 that were announced by MLB in March is one that will cap the number of pitchers on a roster, allowing for a “two-way player” designation but only if the player “pitched at least 20 innings and started at least 20 games as a position player or designated hitter, with at least three plate appearances in each of those games,” according to Baseball America. That’s a ridiculously steep bar that even Ohtani wouldn’t clear, if it were determined by his 2019 bat-only performance. However, as the number of pitchers on the roster is still to be determined, the matter doesn’t appear to be set in stone yet. Hopefully, the Angels and Rays will speak up loudly enough to prevent such a restrictive measure from being put in place.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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3 years ago

That batting line for Walsh is ghastly, but ZiPs projects him to have a 70 wRC+ and Steamer projects him to have a wRC+ of 93. On the pitching side, he’s only pitched something like 20 innings in professional baseball, and he’s getting strikeouts, so I think he’s got a shot at becoming someone who could be a middle reliever. If those things ever happen, he’d have some value to an NL team who could let him pinch-hit and then pitch.