Drew Storen did not start the Nationals’ season as their closer, and Manager Jim Riggleman has not bestowed that title on any of relievers. Which makes it odd to say this: Storen, more than a fifth of the way through the season, has been perhaps the best closer in baseball this year.
Storen has pitched 17 consecutive scoreless innings, tied for the longest current streak of any pitcher in baseball. He’s converted all eight of his save opportunities, making him one of three relievers to have at least eight chances without blowing any. He has a 0.46 ERA, the best in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 18 innings.
Lately, Storen has been receiving every save opportunity the Nationals have produced. And, while Riggleman still isn’t handing out any titles, that isn’t about to change.
“I want it to become permanent,” Riggleman said. “But we’re in the infancy of Drew Storen’s career here. We have to react a little bit to what we see. As good as he’s been throwing and the results he’s been getting, it’s an easy reaction just to give him the ball in the ninth. We’re not to jump to any conclusions and take things for granted. But I certainly anticipate that he’s going to get big outs for us in the ninth and finish games.”
The key to Storen’s excellent start developed amid struggles this spring training, when pitching coach Steve McCatty improved him to throw more fastballs and, some games, forced him to throw more.
Last year, Storen would fall into a pattern he used in college and the minors. When he would throw a ball with a fastball, McCatty said, he always followed it with a breaking ball. He could get away with it in college and the minors against batters who chased pitches out of the zone. In the majors, he could not.
And so, Storen learned this spring how to rely on his fastball and locate it better in the zone, and he’s carried that into the season.
“It’s just more the mental approach,” Storen said. “I kind of just changed my whole approach to it, and it seems to help.”
Said McCatty: “I know he’s got good offspeed stuff. But he’s not going to the offspeed as soon as he gets behind the count. So it puts a different thought in the hitter’s brain. When he came up last year, every time he threw a ball with his fastball, he’d go right to his breaking ball. We talked about that a lot.”
Storen, also at McCatty’s urging, has stopped trying to constantly make small adjustments to his mechanics. Storen has a natural predilection to tinker, and McCatty has tried to make him simplify and think less.
“I say, ‘Quit tinkering. Why are you doing that?’ ” McCatty said. “I know that’s kind of what he did in the minor leagues. But he was there so short, you really don’t get a chance to know what to do. He’s on-the-job training in the big leagues. He just likes to do that. That’s just mentality. And then you have to say, ‘No, Drew, that’s enough.’ That’s him. And I guess it’s because he’s never really satisfied, either. That’s a good thing, too.”
In the spring, Storen did make one crucial adjustment. He returned to his stiff-legged slide step, which both Jayson Werth and Matt Stairs said made his delivery more deceptive. Once he made that switch, he struck with it.
“I’m feel like I’m doing the right thing sticking to a routine and not trying to do too much,” Storen said. “That’s kind of how I got in trouble last year. I tried to overdo it a little bit. I’m just trying to stay consistent.”