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The secrets behind Nationals' closer Drew Storen's success

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In late July of 2013, Drew Storen's big league career took a detour. The Nats (second) 2009 first round pick had struggled to a 5.95 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 47 appearances, earning a demotion to Syracuse to work on some mechanical adjustments. Since returning on August 16 last season, Storen has been a completely different pitcher. Let's examine why.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I still recall the reaction when Drew Storen was sent down to Syracuse last season in late July. Nats' setup man Tyler Clippard had some choice words about how the Storen situation was handled at the time:

I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself… I’ve been through adversity in my career, so I know how to handle it. This is a tough day. He’s going to be part of this organization for a long time, I hope, because he’s good, and we need him.

Yeah. I'm leaving some things out that Clippard said. We're not going to dwell on the fact that Drew Storen was demoted last season. Instead, we're going to look at how it's made him a better pitcher.

Let's have fun with arbitrary end points!

We're going to look at three different statistical periods. First, we're going to look at Storen's performance from 2010-2012, when he was a strong reliever who would eventually emerge as the Nats' closer. We're then going to view 2013 (prior to the demotion). The final category will include his return last August and his performance so far this season.

Period ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2010-2012 2.96 1.10 8.38 2.80 0.61
2013 (PD) 5.95 1.50 9.08 2.75 1.48
Since 1.28 1.00 8.32 2.18

0.26

What changed?

Four basic things changed for Storen upon his return to the Nats last August.

  1. His mechanics
  2. Strike One!
  3. He started throwing his changeup more often
  4. His luck evened out

Mechanical Adjustment

If you want something more in-depth about his mechanics, there are smarter people who have covered the subject. I'm neither a pitching coach nor a scout, so let's stick to the basics.

  • Storen's old mechanics featured his front leg remaining stiff, but pushing outward. He switched to a more traditional leg kick.
  • While the first thing you think of when you hear that a pitcher isn't using a traditional leg kick is that he's working with a slide step, that wasn't the case with Storen. With the change to the traditional leg kick, he's actually faster to the plate.
  • This change also helped him establish more consistency with his arm slot and release point. This has been a tremendous boost to his command and control.

Strike One!


Let's have a look at some of Storen's plate discipline numbers before discussing the importance of strike one.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2010 34.0% 64.0% 47.9% 63.9% 88.8% 79.3% 46.4% 57.3% 9.4%
2011 31.0% 58.5% 44.4% 63.1% 88.5% 79.5% 49.0% 66.0% 8.9%
2012 32.7% 62.5% 47.3% 49.2% 81.7% 70.3% 49.1% 59.5% 13.4%
2013 30.3% 67.6% 48.4% 64.1% 87.9% 80.3% 48.6% 59.6% 9.4%
2014 35.5% 69.3% 50.9% 70.2% 83.7% 78.6% 45.8% 63.6% 10.5%


Sometimes the most important pitch isn't that devastating slider or that fastball with late life. Sometimes it's important to get ahead in the count. Storen has done that more this season than he has in any season outside of 2011. In fact, he's gotten ahead of 4% more hitters than he did in either of the past two seasons. Those other numbers we've highlighted are the percentage of pitches outside the zone that opponents swing at (O-Swing%) and the total percentage of pitches that Storen has thrown in the zone. You'll note that hitters are chasing more, which is likely to happen more frequently when they're behind in the count. Storen is taking advantage of that, throwing less total pitches that are actually in the zone than he ever has... despite getting that first strike more often than he typically has.

More Changeups


Here's something kind of crazy. Even classifying the sinker (two-seamer) as a fastball, Storen has thrown his fastball just 52.3% of the time this season. For a pitcher who generally checks in at around 60% for the season (and once topped 70%), that's pretty extreme. Most pitchers work off the fastball, so you can expect to see the pitch well over half the time.  Every starter in the Nationals' rotation has thrown at least 60% fastballs. Let's have a look at the Pitchf/x Pitch Types for Drew Storen:

Season FA% SI% SL% CH%
2010 31.8% 28.7% 38.4%
2011 29.8% 34.9% 33.1% 0.9%
2012 20.3% 51.3% 24.6% 3.8%
2013 23.3% 35.0% 31.5% 9.4%
2014 17.6% 34.7% 28.6% 17.8%


Again, the sinker is a fastball, but that's still just 52.3%. He's throwing slightly fewer sliders than he's thrown in the past, but he's more than making up for it with his use of the changeup. Using the changeup more often should serve two primary goals:
  1. It should give him another weapon against left-handed hitters. Storen hadn't shown dramatic platoon splits in any season outside of his (shortened) 2012 campaign. However, an effective changeup tends to be a good out pitch against opposite-handed hitters because the horizontal movement tails away from them.
  2. It adds another pitch to the arsenal that opposing hitters have to keep in mind. Even if the changeup is just an average offering, combining it with his terrific slider, his above average four-seam fastball, and his plus sinker makes it a lot more difficult for hitters to sit on the fastball.
Of course, the weird thing is that the Changeup itself hasn't been particularly effective. It's been just a hair below average according to Runs Above Average. Has it helped to make the fastball more effective, though? You bet.

Season wFA wSI wSL wCH
2010 0.6 1.4 5.8
2011 -0.5 4.2 7.8 0.5
2012 2.9 5.5 1.7 0.1
2013 0.8 -1.8 -1.1 1.9
2014 4.3 4.6 1.9

-0.3


His 8.9 combined RAA between his four-seamer and his sinker represents a career best.

He's had some good fortune


Last season, Storen had some particularly awful luck, so sometimes things just level out. Let's have a look.

Season IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP
2010 55.1 8.46 3.58 0.49 .296 71.2% 39.6% 5.0% 3.58 3.26 3.88
2011 75.1 8.84 2.39 0.96 .246 81.1% 47.3% 11.1% 2.75 3.32 3.14
2012 30.1 7.12 2.37 0.00 .265 74.2% 53.7% 0.0% 2.37 2.4 3.52
2013 61.2 8.46 2.77 1.02 .319 67.8% 40.9% 9.9% 4.52 3.62 3.71
2014 51.1 7.36 1.93 0.35 .255 91.6% 49.6% 4.0% 1.23 2.81 3.52


BABIP


Here are Storen's batted ball statistics:

Season GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH%
2010 0.98 20.1% 39.6% 40.3% 8.3% 5.0% 3.4% 0.00%
2011 1.33 17.2% 47.3% 35.5% 9.7% 11.1% 3.1% 25.00%
2012 1.91 18.3% 53.7% 28.0% 17.4% 0.0% 0.0% 0.00%
2013 1.04 19.9% 40.9% 39.2% 5.6% 9.9% 8.1% 12.50%
2014 1.40 14.9% 49.6% 35.5% 10.0% 4.0% 7.1% 0.00%


The trusty xBABIP calculator tells us that Storen's expected BABIP this season is .295. He's kept his line drive rate down, but ground balls don't seem to be finding as many holes as would be expected. Fly balls aren't clearing the fence very often, which means that more of them are being converted into outs than we would ordinarily expect. Some normal BABIP regression wouldn't be all that surprising.

Strand Rate


Given Storen's troubles holding runners on in the past, it's not all that surprising that Storen's strand rate was one of his trouble areas in 2013. His strand rate for his career is actually a little better than league average (76.5%.... League average in 2014 is 73.0%). Among pitchers with 50 innings or more, Storen has the fifth highest strand rate in the majors this season. Just nine pitchers with 50+ innings this season are over 90%.

This is kind of a double-edged sword. A check of pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched since the turn of the millennium tells me that the highest strand rate recorded since 2000 belongs to Billy Wagner at 81.6%.

The encouraging thing is that 8 of the top 10 pitchers in terms of strand rate over that span were relievers... including the Nats own Rafael Soriano (79.6% in 627.2 IP).  It's possible that relievers are more likely to strand runners because they're working in shorter bursts and throwing with maximum effort most of the time. It's also possible that this is just randomness.

HR/FB


Apart from a high percentage of infield fly balls and/or playing in a cavernous park such as Petco, home run rates are likely to normalize at some point. In the case of a reliever, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to regress this year (or even next), but it's likely to happen at some point. The MLB average this season is a 9.6% HR/FB rate.  Storen's current 4.0% is significantly below both that figure and his own career average of 7.2%.

What should we expect moving forward?


It's safe to say that the (pre-demotion) 2013 version of Storen is gone. Storen's change in mechanics has led to improved control.  The willingness to use the changeup hasn't just given him another weapon; it's made the weapons he already had more effective. Storen's statistical profile indicates that he may have actually had his best season in 2012.... despite the elbow surgery that cost him half of that season and that one game we don't like to mention. His performance since returning from Syracuse last August makes it look like Storen picked up right where he left off in the 2012 regular season.