It is easy to forget now, but Drew Storen began this season as a set-up man. He shared the Nationals’ closer role with Sean Burnett and, and in the early days of the season, Burnett received more chances than him. Storen had come off an awful spring training in regard to results, and the Nationals had briefly considered starting him at Class AAA Syracuse.
It’s easy to forget because of how thoroughly Storen has entrenched himself as the Nationals closer. Tuesday night, Storen recorded his 30th save of the season in his 34th chance. Reaching 30 saves did strike him as a significant goal, until he had achieved it.
“Now that I did it, it probably means more,” Storen said. “It wasn’t anything that I aimed for or anything like that. Just being that I didn’t even start the year closing, it’s been a long year. I had a terrible spring training, and I had to figure things out. It’s been a cool process, to say the least.”
Storen’s season, at his age, has already landed him in rare company. With 47 games remaining, Storen became only the seventh closer in baseball history to save at least 30 games in his age 23 season or earlier.
Former Nationals closer Chad Cordero set the all-time record for saves by a reliever 23 or young in 2005, saving 47 games in the Nationals’ inaugural season in Washington. Here’s the full list, in descending order of saves, with the year they did and their age:
1. Chad Cordero, 47 (2005) 23
2. Neftali Feliz, 40 (2010) 22
3. Gregg Olson, 37 (1990) 23
4. Huston Street, 37 (2006) 22
5. Craig Kimbrel, 36 and counting (2011) 23
6. Byung-Hyun Kim, 36 (2002) 23
7. Drew Storen, 30 and counting (2011) 23
When Storen looks back at his season, he still sees spring training as the turning point. His ERA ballooned to double-digits and he struggled more than he had at anytime of his baseball life, all the way back to Little League. At the urging of pitching coach Steve McCatty, he focused on spotting his fastball and hardly threw his slider, his best pitch. He knew he needed to improve on the area, and by the end of spring training, he did.
“It kind of shows you how funny the game is,” Storen said. “It just takes little minor adjustments, and they can go a long way. I think those spring training struggles were kind of key for me. It’s obviously not ideal, but you just figure out what you need to be successful when you go through those struggles.
“It made me a lot tougher, too. Yeah, you have bad outings every once in a while, but you’re used to bouncing back. Well, in spring training, I was adding on every time I was going out there. To be able to figure it out, I worked through that. To kind of grind it out, it helped me a lot.”
Just as significant as Storen’s success in his first full season has been his durability. On April 7, Storen threw two innings in Florida, and the next day he pitched one inning in New York against the Mets. The day after, he told Manager Jim Riggleman he needed a day off. That has not happened again all season. Even when Storen pitched three consecutive days in July, he told Manager Davey Johnson he’d be ready for the fourth day.
“I feel just as good as I did early in the season, which is pretty unbelievable,” Storen said. “I’ve pitched a lot, but I don’t feel like I’ve been abused.”
Storen has been mindful of one of closing’s cold reality: It is, for the vast majority of those who do it, a short-term profession. The list above is instructive. Set aside Kimbel and Feliz, whose careers are still unfolding, and consider the path of the other closers after the season in which they recorded 30 saves at 23 or 22:
>>> Olson recorded at least 29 saves the next three seasons, but injury and ineffectiveness derailed his career. After age 27, he did not have any productive years.
>>> Cordero pitched two more solid seasons, but underwent major shoulder surgery and was out of baseball by 27. He retired this year, at 29, after a short-lived comeback attempt.
>>> Kim never saved more than 16 games in one season, and he was out of baseball by age 29.
>>> Street has remained durable and effective. Over the past four seasons, he’s saved 118 games and blown only 22 saves.
This is by no means conclusive data, but the one-of-four success rate is telling. Even the best closers are usually comets, shining bright and then burning out just as quickly as they appear. It’s something Storen gets, and wants to prevent.
“I think from a young age, I understood how bad throwing is for you,” Storen said. “I think I’ve been fortunate enough to be getting the right kind of treatment I need since I’ve been in high school, understanding what I need to know.”
Storen has watched teammates and become attuned to his own arm. He knows when he shouldn’t play long toss before a game and when he should push through soreness. This offseason, he shut down his throwing for the first time in four years, wanting to preserve his arm. He thinks that may have been one of the factors in his poor spring training, but he also thinks it was worth it.
“Relieving, and especially closing, there’s a short shelf-life. That’s why you can’t cut corners when you condition. You can’t cut corners on rehab. You do all your shoulder stuff after you throw. You ice. When you cut a corner, it might not hurt me tomorrow. Say I don’t stretch before I throw. It may not hurt me tomorrow. But it might hurt me a month from now, or it might hurt me a year from now. Stuff adds up.”
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