Michael Lorenzen loves to hit, and he’s good at it. The Cincinnati Reds reliever — and sometimes outfielder and pinch hitter — went 9 for 31 last year, with four home runs. A black hole in the batter’s box he’s not.
His college numbers were every bit as boffo. In his three years as a centerfielder and part-time pitcher at Cal State Fullerton, Lorenzen slashed .324/.394/.478. But when push came to shove, scouts were more impressed with his right arm. In 2013, the now 27-year-old was drafted 38th overall by the Reds as a pitcher. His hitting days were over, at least to the extent that he was no longer a position player.
But again, Lorenzen loves to hit. That’s something that’s never changed. And while this might surprise you, he feels that he’s a better hitter now than he was before. The reasons why might surprise you, as well.
David Laurila: Do you view hitting as more of an art, or as more of a science?
Michael Lorenzen: “I look at hitting as a blend of both, which is funny, because in my current role I do a blend of multiple things. That’s the way I think, too. I consider pitching to be both an art and a science. There’s never … if you’re sold out to one thing, you’re missing so much. To me, balance is key to all things. If you’re sold out to being an art, you’re missing all the science. If you’re sold out on all the science, you’re missing out on all the art. That’s how my mind works.”
Laurila: How would you describe yourself as a hitter?
Lorenzen: “Stylistically, I… I’m usually going to come in in a pinch-hitting role. That’s going to define my approach. As a pinch hitter, I’m coming in to swing the bat. I’m not coming in to get to 0-1 and 0-2 without swinging the bat. I’m looking for a pitch to hit, trying to do some damage.”
Laurila: Would your approach be different if you were playing every day?
Lorenzen: “I’d be more patient, knowing that I’d be getting multiple at bats against the pitcher. I’d be figuring out how he was going to attack me. And the more pitches I could see off of him, the better at bats I should have later in the game. I’d be setting myself up to do some damage later in the game.”
Laurila: As it is, you’re watching from the bullpen. That doesn’t really allow you to watch the opposing pitcher.
Lorenzen: “Not at all. So what I do is watch video. If they tell me I’m hitting against someone, I look at my iPad before I go out there to hit. I figure out what he’s throwing, and what his best secondary pitch is. I like the sheet that shows the percentages. Say a guy throws a four-seam fastball, a cutter, a slider, and a changeup, but to a right-hander hitter he just throws the four-seamer and the cutter. I can eliminate pitches before I go up there.”
Laurila: Have you noticed pitchers sequencing you any differently than they do full-time hitters?
Lorenzen: “The pitcher’s strengths are the pitcher’s strengths. No one wants to give up a home run to me — no one wants to give up a hit to me — so they’re going to run with what they do well. So what I like to do is look at a guy in our lineup who is kind of a power guy, and likes to swing the bat. However they throw him, I’m figuring that’s how they’re going to throw me.”
Laurila: In a perfect world, you’d presumably like to know which pitch is coming.
Lorenzen: “I’d absolutely like to know. That’s where the science — the stats — come into play for me. If I know that he likes to go to his cutter when he’s behind in the count, then I can sit on the cutter when I’m behind. If I know that he likes to put you away with a high fastball, I don’t have to feel like I’m in a corner when I’m 0-2. I know what to expect.
“What’s helped me as a hitter is that I’m a pitcher now. I sequence these things. Pitchers throw certain pitches for a reason. It’s because we’re good at it. We don’t just make things up on the fly. It’s like, ‘I like to throw my fastball up in the zone with two strikes because I’m really freaking good at it.’ I know I can get it there, and I’ve had success, so when you come up, and I get you to two strikes, that’s what I’m going to do.
“If I’m up there hitting, I understand that mentality. So that’s what I’m going to look for. I also feel like I’m pretty good at putting the bat on the ball if I know what you’re throwing.”
Laurila: Some hitters mostly just look fastball middle, and adjust from there.
Lorenzen: “I don’t do that at all. I sit pitches. I sit spin. If I know that a guy has a good slider, and he throws it 47% of the time, that’s most likely the pitch I’m looking for. If the pitcher is out there thinking, ‘He’s just a good fastball hitter,’ he’s not going to want to throw me that fastball. He’s going to throw me some spin, because he thinks that because I’m a pitcher, I’m not going to be able to hit spin. So I’m going to sit on his best breaking ball. That’s what I’m going to look for. That’s the way I hit.”
Laurila: How much more difficult is it to hit now compared to when you were getting regular at bats?
Lorenzen: “It’s actually kind of easier to hit now. I say that because I tend to overcomplicate things. When I’m solely focused on one thing, I can get in a rabbit hole. I want to be the best I possibly can be. I want to make sure that I’m preparing myself the best that I possibly can be. So I tend to overdo things a bit. Because I can’t overdo it with the hitting now… that’s made me so much better.
“Because I’m pitching, I’m in the head of the pitcher. I’m in the head of the enemy. I know what the enemy wants to do to me. That’s also made me a better hitter. Really, all the years of me focusing on my swing, and focusing for hours and hours… I mean, at Cal State Fullerton I’d go [to the batting cage] at night and be there for three hours. I’d be there every night, hitting, hitting, hitting, working on my swing. But do you know what? if you’re still chasing the slider in the dirt, it doesn’t matter what kind of swing you have. You’re not going to hit.
“Things are different now. A lot of time, when I get an at-bat, that’s the first swing I take that day. I hadn’t taken batting practice. I will take batting practice here and there, but most of the home runs I hit last year came on my first swing of the day. It all came down to my approach. What was I looking for?’
“My swing is simple. I keep it simple. I keep my eyes stuck. I keep my head still. I try to put a barrel on a ball. And you can’t put a barrel on a ball if you can’t stop swinging the ball in the dirt. I find that a lot when I face certain hitters who are toolsy. They’re good, yet can’t lay off the slider in the dirt, or can’t lay off the fastball that’s too far in. It doesn’t matter how good of a swing he has if he can’t lay off those pitches.”
Laurila: To what extent can you recognize pitches out of the hand?
Lorenzen: “I think that’s why I sit pitches. Last year I was able to sit off-speed and actually pull … like, I’m sitting off-speed and I get a fastball in, and I pull it for a home run. That shows me that maybe … some guys are different. Some guys can sit spin and adjust to the fastball. That works for me.
“Learning about yourself is a huge deal. Like I said, I would always just focus on my swing. So before, I wasn’t very good at recognizing spin. Now I feel like I’m really good at recognizing spin, because I’m thinking about my approach, not where my hands are, or where my foot is.”
Laurila: Was reintroducing hitting to your game much like getting back on a bicycle?
Lorenzen: “You know what? It was. When I started again, it was a slow progression … no, it was a rapid progression to get to where I am today. In college, I tried to force a lot of power. I hit .350 my freshman year, but I only had two home runs. My second year, I wanted to hit more home runs, and I took a dive in batting average. My third year, I did well but had a lot of swing-and-miss to my game. That’s because I had a leg kick and I didn’t know what I was doing.
“When I got into pro ball, I was doing the same thing with the leg kick. But then I was like, ‘You know what? My freshman year was the best I ever felt with the bat.’ At that time I was seeing the ball and putting the barrel on the ball. I just wasn’t as strong as I am today. Now I’m just a heel up. That’s what I did freshman year. It was heel up, and put the barrel on the ball. The difference is that now I have the strength to put the ball over the fence when I do that.”
Laurila: When did you make that adjustment?
Lorenzen: “I went back to that last year, and the result was that I was seeing the ball better. I was putting the barrel on the ball and hitting home runs. It was this progression where I was like, ‘You don’t have all this time to be in the cage, tinkering with your swing, so you need to get back to something that’s very simple. For me, ‘very simple’ is seeing the ball, lifting your heel up off the ground, putting it down, taking a swing, and trusting your strength.
“Again, the two-way thing is helping me become a better baseball player, because it is simplifying every aspect of my game. I’m getting there with the pitching side of it, too. Now I’m realizing, ‘Whoa. I simplified the hitting side, and it made me so much better.’ I’m totally seeing that what I’ve been doing on the pitching side is what I used to do with the hitting.’ I’ve been making it too complicated. So how do I make that really simple, like I did with my hitting?
“The center field thing is what’s truly like riding a bike for me. I haven’t lost a step since college. I haven’t lost anything out there since college. I’m out there keeping it simple, and that’s what I need to do in all parts of my game.”
Laurila: Keeping things as simple works for you, but at the same time, you’re striving to the best you can be. Have you delved into hitting analytics at all?
Lorenzen: “No. Honestly, I’m kind of like … you have to know yourself. You have to know how you’re able to deal with certain information, and I don’t think I’d deal with that information in a beneficial way. I might overanalyze. I know what I like. I’ve picked out what I like from the analytics side of things, and that’s the percentages of what the pitcher is likely to be throwing me. I’m going to just let the rest take care of itself.
“Basically, I don’t want any noise. I don’t have time for that. Unless something is drastically off, I don’t want anything extra going on in my mind when I’m hitting. Not that information can’t be beneficial. It can. Everything works — I truly believe that — but not everything works for everybody.
“The way Kyle Farmer hits works for him, but it probably doesn’t work for me. It’s not that one way is right and another way is wrong. It’s what’s right for you. The same with analytics. It’s all good information — it’s great information — but what is the good information for you? What can you digest and take out to the game?
“I have a guy out from South Korea now, for this series. He’s a martial artist. He’s teaching me about being rooted into the ground, and generating force from the ground up. Different techniques. Different philosophies. I’m really open-minded to that, because, again, I really do believe that everything does work. You simply have to figure out what works for you.”
Laurila: What you learn from a martial artist can translate to the diamond.
Lorenzen: “Absolutely. It’s good to get people from outside of baseball involved. People who have been in baseball their whole lives can be so conditioned to a swing, or to someone throwing a ball. We’re so conditioned to these movements that they can kind of blend into each other.
“Two years ago, I had this guy in from Israel. His name is Ido Portal, and he’s trained Conor McGregor and all these other guys. He’s a movement specialist. He didn’t know a thing about baseball, but he was watching us throwing and would say, ‘Man, you don’t use the front leg well,’ or ‘You don’t use the thoracic spine well.’ He’s not conditioned to seeing the way we throw. These things really stand out to people who aren’t within the game of baseball.
“[Portal] was like, ‘You guys could really be doing this better.’ When you see it all day, every day, your whole life, it all blends together and it’s harder to really pinpoint what’s off. It all looks the same. Guys who come in with a different eye can maybe say something we’ve always heard, but in a different way. That might click for us.”
Laurila: Information is valuable only when it becomes actionable.
Lorenzen: “That’s a good point, and that’s where understanding your body is very important. Good proprioception, good awareness of everything. Training with this guy, Portal, has really gotten me into awareness of my spine. If you’re able to move your spine in a certain way… it’s like how you have that brain-muscle connection where you’re telling your fingers you want your hand to close. That’s what happens; they close.
“If you’re able to have that awareness with everything in your body — it’s obviously not easy to do — when someone tells you to make an adjustment, you can do it. You can train your body in a way to have awareness. That’s what a lot of my off-season training is: creating better awareness in my body, so that when I’m out there [on the mound], or out there [at the plate], I can make an adjustment.”
Laurila: Is it easier for you to make an adjustment on the mound, or at the plate?
Lorenzen: “They’re both difficult. They really are. This is one where … something I’ve learned is that the one you care about the most is the hardest to make an adjustment with. Does that make sense? The one that you’re holding onto like you can’t let it go — it’s your everything — is the hardest one to adjust. So for me right now, there [at the plate] is the easiest. There [on the mound] is the hardest, because that’s what I’m supposed to do. In college it was the other way around. I was a center fielder, a hitter. When I pitched, I was kind of just having fun. I wasn’t thinking about failure. In pro ball, that’s flip-flopped.”
Laurila: In other words, what you’re doing with the bat now is a bonus.
Lorenzen: “Yes. My own expectations for hitting are high, but I know that’s not where my livelihood is. It’s not what’s going to provide for my family. It’s pitching. When I get on the field, I’m expected to succeed there [on the mound]. There’s less pressure on me there [at the plate], which makes hitting easier. Even though it should be harder now, because I’m a pitcher, it’s actually easier.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.