There has been a lot of talk about the Royals perhaps pursuing Jon Gray in free agency, which makes sense considering the Royals need an extra “presence” in the rotation to help guide their young starters. While the Royals saw some promising signs from their talented cadre of young pitchers, there still were signs that they weren’t totally ready yet to anchor a “playoff-contending” rotation. Brady Singer still needs to work on a third pitch. Kris Bubic has to limit the home runs. Daniel Lynch needs to find consistency in his command. Carlos Hernandez needs to generate more swings and misses as a starter. And Jackson Kowar…well he needs to work on a whole lot if he wants to be in the rotation discussion in 2022 and maybe beyond.
Considering Gray has experience pitching like a No. 1 guy in Colorado, and the fact that Kauffman Stadium allows fewer HRs than Coors Field, it makes sense why many Royals fans are envisioning the 30-year-old Rockies pitcher as a possible fit with the Royals in 2022:
While Gray would be a good fit in Kansas City (after all, Jeremy Guthrie is a recent example of someone who benefited from moving from Coors to Kauffman as his primary home stadium), it may be unrealistic that Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo will aggressively pursue Gray. First off, the market for starting pitching already seems to be an expensive one, and after the Tigers just inked former Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77-million deal, it is likely that Gray would command something similar in free agency. Unfortunately, for the Royals, that kind of deal is just out of their price range.
Second, the Royals seem to be focusing on boosting their bullpen this offseason, with the idea of having more depth in their relief corps, especially with pitchers who can go multiple innings and be thrown in a variety of situations leverage-wise. This was echoed by Picollo in a recent radio conversation on November 9th with Josh Vernier of 610 AM Radio:
This focus this offseason should also eliminate the discussion of the Royals acquiring a “high-priced” veteran starting pitcher like Gray.
That being said, who is a veteran arm out of the bullpen that can be that pitcher who can go multiple innings, pitch in a variety of roles, and benefit from the defense and park factors behind him in Kansas City?
One intriguing arm available on the free-agent market is Michael Lorenzen, a former Cincinnati Reds reliever who could help solidify this bullpen in the middle-to-late innings and benefit in the move from pitching primarily at the homer-friendly Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati for the entirety of his career thus far to the more pitcher-friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium in 2022.
Much like Gray, Lorenzen is 30-years-old and was once a top prospect in the Reds farm system. In 2014, Lorenzen was rated by Baseball America as the 6th best prospect in the Cincinnati system, and he improved his ranking to No. 4 in the Reds system in 2015. A supplemental round pick (38th overall) out of Cal State Fullerton in 2013, Lorenzen was expected to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Reds, but command and consistency issues eventually forced him to a bullpen role.
In his rookie debut with the Reds in 2015, Lorenzen made 21 starts and 27 appearances overall. Unfortunately, he didn’t provide an impressive line, as he posted a 5.40 ERA, and a -0.4 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. In his rookie year, Lorenzen walked far too many batters and didn’t strike out nearly enough, as evidenced by his 1.46 K/BB ratio. In addition, his struggles were also amplified thanks to the long ball, as he gave up an HR/FB rate of 15.8 percent. While GAB tends to favor hitters, giving up that high of an HR/FB rate as a starter certainly wasn’t going to cut it, especially for an organization like the Reds that has a rich baseball history as well as a passionate (and fickle) fan base.
The Reds moved Lorenzen to the bullpen in 2016, and he saw immediate gains. His ERA regressed to 2.88 in 50 IP, and his BB/9 went from 4.53 in 2015 to 2.34 in 2016. As a result, his fWAR improved to 0.5, a nearly one win improvement overall from his rookie season. Granted, Lorenzen still had problems with the home runs allowed, as his HR/FB rate actually increased to 22.7 percent in 2016. However, take that blemish away, and the Reds had to be encouraged of the growth Lorenzen made in his transition to the bullpen.
Starting in 2017, Lorenzen continued to make adjustments as a pitcher that had an impact on him allowing fewer home runs, despite an innings increase. From 2017-2019, Lorenzen averaged 82.4 innings a season and an ERA of 3.49. Over that timespan, he accumulated an fWAR of 2.4, highlighted by a 1.2 fWAR campaign with the Reds in 2019. A big contributor to that improvement was his ability to limit the long ball, as his HR/FB rate over that three-year period averaged 12.4 percent, 10.3 percent lower than that sophomore season.
A big change from that 2017-2019 period was that Lorenzen started utilizing his sinker more, a pitch he rarely utilized in his rookie year. As evidenced from the chart below from Baseball Savant, it went from being only utilized 5.6 percent of the time in 2015 to being used as his primary pitch in 2017 and 2018, and his second-most used pitch in 2019:
Another interesting addition to Lorenzen’s pitch arsenal was his cutter, which he didn’t start using until 2017. His cutter was an effective weapon in 2017, as it generated a 29.3 whiff rate, according to Savant data. However, the pitch hasn’t been a primary one until last season, as Lorenzen threw the cutter 29.4 percent of the time in 2021, a career-high.
Lorenzen has struggled in a variety of ways after his breakout 2019 season. During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, he only pitched in 18 games and accumulated 33.2 innings for the Reds during their playoff campaign. Last season, Lorenzen was out until late July due to a shoulder injury. When he returned, he only pitched 29 innings and posted a 5.59 ERA, a career-high.
Thus, considering the Reds front office’s desire to cut payroll this offseason, it is not surprising that the Reds let Lorenzen hit the free-agent market, especially after a final season in Cincinnati where he struggled to stay healthy as well as effective on the mound.
However, while Lorenzen may seem to be on the downswing of his career, especially after lackluster 2020 and 2021 campaigns, it is possible that Lorenzen could be due for a bounce-back in 2021, especially if he is fully healthy.
I wanted to dive deeper into Lorenzen’s profile, and what the difference was from 2019, his most recently productive full season, to 2021, where he struggled immensely. I decided to compare the monthly splits from 2019 to the splits from 2021 and compare Swing-Take data from 2019 and 2021, via Baseball Savant.
Here is a look at Lorenzen’s splits from last year:
As Royals fans can see, there is a limited sample of data, and the July data is even more limited, as it only encompasses three innings of work.
However, while Lorenzen’s FIP (3.43) is better in August, one can see that Lorenzen may have been more “unlucky” in September and October, as evidenced by a 30.4 percent drop in strand rate (LOB%). Strand rate tends to be fluky, and even though there was only a nominal increase in BABIP, the dramatic decrease in strand rate is a big reason why Lorenzen’s FIP is 5.19 in the last month of play. But a promising sign from that last month is that he limited his walks (13.6 percent) and actually slightly improved in K/BB ratio (1.29 to 1.50). Of course, the home runs were concerning (1.26 HR/9 rate), but when looking at his home runs overall, he still managed to keep his rate under 1 (0.62 to be specific), which is an encouraging sign.
Now let’s take a look at his monthly splits from 2019:
An interesting trend from 2019 is that his HR/9 rates were particularly high during the first four months of play, but dramatically decreased starting in July. That is evidenced in his HR/9 being 1.38 in the first half of 2019 and only being 0.48 in the second half. Thus, it’s not surprising that Lorenzen posted an improved FIP of 3.21 in the second half after posting a 4.02 mark in the first half two seasons ago.
Thus, one has to wonder that if Lorenzen had pitched the entire year in 2021, would his HR/9 numbers regress, like they did in 2019? And remember, he saw this HR/9 regression in 2019 in a hitter-friendly home park. It is likely that he’ll be able to keep those HR/9 numbers even lower while pitching primarily at Kauffman, especially since he ranked in the 99th and 97th percentile in 2019 and 2020 in average exit velocity on batted balls, according to Savant (he had no data from last year due to too small a sample).
On a swing-take end, Lorenzen was pretty phenomenal in 2019, as he garnered a -14 run value, according to Savant. Here’s a look at his chart from that season:
Not surprisingly, two years later, his run value was +1, a significant regression from his impressive 2019 campaign on a swing-take end. Let’s take a look at his chart from this past season:
Honestly, there isn’t much of a difference in Lorenzen’s 2021 waste, chase, and even heart zones in comparison to 2019. The biggest change is that he was -17 runs in the shadow zone in 2019, while only being -2 runs in the same area in 2021. That is a significant difference and a big reason why Lorenzen wasn’t as successful on the mound last season.
A big issue was Lorenzen leaving some pitches up in those shadow zones, especially his changeup and cutter.
Here’s an example of Lorenzen leaving a changeup up in that shadow zone to the Pirates’ Hoy Park, and Park is able to line a single which plates two:
And here is an example of Lorenzen leaving a cutter up in the shadow zone to the White Sox’s Tim Anderson, who lines an easy single up the middle:
While it can be easy to dwell on those mistakes, when Lorenzen is commanding his pitches, his stuff is impressive, especially on a swing-and-miss basis. His four-seam fastball generated a K rate of 28.6 percent last year, according to Savant. When he locates it high in the chase zone in the upper 90’s (he averaged 96.8 MPH on the pitch last year), it produces punch outs like this one against JT Realmuto of the Phillies:
In addition, his slider generated a whiff rate of 40.7 percent last year, which was the highest whiff rate of any of the six pitches he threw, according to Savant. Here’s an example of Lorenzen getting Guillermo Heredia of the Braves to swing and miss on a slider on that chase/waste zone border:
Lorenzen may not be a “high profile” pickup for the Royals. However, if Royals fans are banking on Gray benefiting by moving from Coors to Kauffman, the same line of thinking should be applied to Lorenzen, as GAB is just as tough on pitchers as Coors.
Even last year, we saw Robert Stephenson benefit from moving from the bandbox in Cincinnati to the more spacious Coors Field, which I predicted could happen in a post on Pitcher List that I wrote prior to the start of the 2021 season:
If the Royals are looking for bullpen improvement at an affordable price, Lorenzen should fit the bill nicely. He has the versatility to either embrace a 7th or 8th-inning setup role or throw a couple of innings in the middle of a game, should a starter be pulled early.
Furthermore, as a Royals fan, one has to like his cutter and four-seam fastball primary combo…
Because hardcore Royals fans should remember how a certain reliever from 2014 to 2016 utilized that combo to success in Kansas City…
Could Lorenzen be that second coming of Wade Davis?
I think that’s worth finding out in 2022…
Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images