GOODYEAR, Ariz. — For most of the past five years, Michael Lorenzen mounted an influence campaign that, despite his best efforts, kept coming up short. A right-handed reliever by profession, Lorenzen would tell anyone who would listen, including his Cincinnati Reds managers, that he could play a mean center field and hit with power, if only they would give him a chance. He campaigned through the media. He shagged flyballs during batting practice as if he were the second coming of Willie Mays Hayes.
But aside from an occasional pinch-hit appearance, two of which in 2018 produced home runs, he never realized his career-long dream of becoming a true two-way player — because no one, to that point, was willing to let him.
And then Shohei Ohtani happened.
In 2018, Ohtani, known as “the Babe Ruth of Japan,” arrived on U.S. shores and, during a riveting debut season with the Los Angeles Angels, which ended with him winning American League rookie of the year honors, put up numbers unseen since the Bambino himself a century before: a .285 batting average, .925 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 22 homers in 326 at-bats at the plate, and a 4-2 record, 3.31 ERA and 11 strikeouts per nine innings on the mound.
This spring, Ohtani is working his way back to the field from September elbow surgery, with a targeted return in May, which will limit him to designated hitter-only duties in 2019, with a full return to two-way duty slated for 2020.
But in the meantime, look at what Lorenzen, 27, is about to do for the Reds: On Monday afternoon, in a spring training game against the Cleveland Indians, some 2½ weeks before Opening Day, he is scheduled to pitch the fifth inning (his fifth mound appearance of the spring), then move to center field for a couple of innings and at least one at-bat — the official first step in what the Reds expect to be a season-long, two-way deployment of their unusually talented player.
And the timing, just one season after Ohtani arrived and knocked down the traditional wall between pitchers and hitters — perhaps forever — is hardly coincidental.
“Oh, 100 percent,” Lorenzen said Sunday, the day before his spring debut as an outfielder, when asked whether Ohtani’s arrival made this possible. “I have a lot to say about just how backwards baseball is in terms of its thought process. Baseball is a business, and Ohtani had all the leverage [in picking a team]. If he wants to be a two-way guy, he gets to be two-way guy.
“And so it forced the front office to open their mind to the idea. Whereas before, it was like, ‘It can’t happen.’ But when you ask why not, they have no legit, solid reason other than, ‘It’s too hard.’ But since when is that an option in sports — ‘It’s too hard’? That’s not my way of thinking, ever.”
Even Reds General Manager Dick Williams acknowledged Ohtani’s example “had an effect” on his team’s decision to deploy Lorenzen as both a pitcher and position player.
“I know, in our front office, we’ve been pushing for this for a while with Lorenzen even before Ohtani came along. Eventually it would’ve happened one way or another,” Williams said. “But there’s no disputing the fact that the existence of Ohtani raised the level of urgency for everybody to try to explore some things.”
All of a sudden, in fact, baseball looks as if it’s about to be overrun with would-be Ohtanis. The Angels themselves are experimenting with two other players as two-way weapons this spring, in minor leaguers Jared Walsh, a 25-year-old left-handed reliever/first baseman, and 18-year-old DH/right-hander William English. The Texas Rangers are experimenting with using corner infielder Matt Davidson as an occasional reliever this spring, and Tampa Bay Rays minor leaguer Brendan McKay, a first baseman/left-handed pitcher who is the second-rated prospect in their farm system, is a full-time, two-way player who could arrive in the majors by 2020.
The logic behind the trend is obvious: with teams shifting more innings and resources toward their bullpens, they are looking for ways to carry extra arms, which, by necessity, means fewer bench players — who, by extension, must be versatile enough in many cases to play different positions. Having one hybrid reliever/position player allows a team to carry an extra arm or an extra bat.
“He’s been very honest about his belief in his own ability to be able to do this,” new Reds manager David Bell said of Lorenzen. “And outside of that, he’s done absolutely everything he could do to get himself ready for this. The last thing you want to do is hold somebody back. That wouldn’t be fair.”
“He’s an interesting weapon to have,” Williams said. “In the NL, we’ll take every advantage we can get.”
Indeed, the difference between a DH-slash-starting-pitcher in the AL and a reliever-slash-outfielder in the NL is vast. With Ohtani, the Angels could script his usage from the beginning — three or four starts at DH each week and one start on the mound.
With the Reds and Lorenzen, there essentially will be no script. He could do both in the same game or even the same inning.
“Our coaches, and we’ve talked about it,” Williams said, “are going to take the approach of: How does he fit into today’s game? And the next day, it’s how does he fit into today’s game? Is he available? Did he pitch? Did he hit yesterday? They’re going to have to take it more day-to-day.”
Perhaps “the Babe Ruth of Fullerton” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “the Babe Ruth of Japan,” but Lorenzen figures he has been preparing for this for his entire baseball-playing life. As a two-way star at Cal State Fullerton, he batted .324 with a .394 on-base percentage and a .478 slugging percentage and went 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA with 35 saves in 42 relief appearances. On the Team USA national collegiate team in 2013, a team that also featured future stars Kris Bryant, Michael Conforto and Trea Turner, Lorenzen served as both the starting center fielder and closer.
“He was an amazing athlete. You play center field on the collegiate national team, with the best collegiate players in the country at the time, you’re pretty good,” said Reds catcher/first baseman/third baseman Kyle Farmer, a former University of Georgia standout who played with Lorenzen on that national collegiate team. “I would feel no hesitation whatsoever putting him out there in center field and letting him start a game. If you can throw 95 to 98 [mph] and hit homers, that’s a pretty special skill set.”
But the Reds drafted Lorenzen in the first round in 2013 as strictly a pitcher — cushioning the blow by telling him they thought it was his best path to get to the majors as quickly as possible.
Since his big league debut in 2015, Lorenzen is 18-16 with a 4.21 ERA in 177 appearances (all but 24 of them in relief) and a .250/.276/.500 batter at the plate, with six homers in 84 at-bats (including 22 plate appearances as a pinch hitter). But if you ask him, his best tool is the one that has been in evidence for only one inning as a big leaguer — his outfield defense.
“That’s the best thing I do, by far,” Lorenzen said. “All my scouting reports in college and stuff were like, ‘He’s a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder.’ I love playing out there. There’s nothing like running down a ball in the gap. There’s just nothing like it.”
In the past, nothing has infuriated Lorenzen more than having to watch some cut-rate, replacement-level player manning a spot in the Reds’ outfield, when he could have gone out there and done at least as well — without costing the team a roster spot. But those infuriating days, it appears, are gone.
“Because they’re in the box of ‘position player,’ they get sent out there,” he said. “But me, I’m in the box of ‘pitcher,’ and even though you’ve played over a thousand games [in center field] in your lifetime — we’re not going to send you out there because that’s not your box. It’s so stupid. That’s what was so baffling. Why would you not want to use this? And it’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating.”
And then, as if he had just run down a ball in the gap, Michael Lorenzen smiled: “Obviously,” he said, “I’m not as frustrated this year.”