Drew Storen’s shrinking late-inning role


(Alex Brandon / AP)

The Nationals signaled their discomfort with Drew Storen finishing games this winter when they signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract to take over as their closer. Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson both said the move had nothing to do with Storen, but it quite obviously affected him – he was the closer, and then he was not.

Johnson’s aversion to using Storen in certain late-game situations has only grown, and it culminated in Monday night’s 5-4 Nationals loss. With the score tied entering the bottom of the ninth, Johnson chose Fernando Abad over Storen. Abad has been excellent in his brief Nationals tenure. But he was also signed this winter as a minor league free agent, and on Saturday a game slipped away in the ninth with him on the mound.

Johnson has lately shied from using Storen in a traditional set-up role. In Colorado, Johnson used Storen to face two batters, both right-handers, after letting Xavier Cedeno face the lefty (Tyler Colvin, who two nights earlier had homered off Storen) who led off the inning. In Cleveland, Storen entered to face one right-handed batter, and that was it. Last night, Johnson started the inning with Abad and stuck with him.

“This week was a tough week, because I had him up a lot,” Johnson said. “Colorado was a place where you really need to control the match-ups — the ball flies there. When he’s right, he’s good against both. This year, he’s had a little problem with left. But I like the way he’s throwing. There was a situation, I like left against left, and I like my lefts right now.”

Johnson explained that Monday night, he wanted Abad to face Ben Revere, the left-hander who was leading off the inning. If Revere reached, Johnson did not want to put Storen in the game because of his penchant for not holding on base runners.

At the granular level, that logic added up. Storen has allowed left-handed hitters a .353 batting average this season. The Nationals’ recent bullpen overhaul, which included the addition of lefties Abad and Ian Krol, was meant to give Johnson a better opportunity to match up late in games. It would make Storen more effective, in part, because he would face fewer lefties. (It also indicated a rapid, sweeping midseason shift in the Nationals’ bullpen philosophy.)

At the broad level, that logic reveals a chain of events that makes it appear something has gone really awry with the Nationals’ belief in Storen:

In 2009, the Nationals chose Storen with the 10th overall pick.

In 2011, Storen saved 43 games – before him, no one had recorded 43 saves in his age-23 season.

In 2013, his manager is manipulating crucial innings to ensure Storen doesn’t face left-handed hitters – up to and including Ben Revere, who has never hit a big league home run – or pitch with runners already on base.

That just seems strange. The timeline leaves out 2012, when Storen underwent elbow surgery, dominated for two months and gave up the two-run lead in Game 5. The Nationals supported Storen with their words in the lead-up to this year, saying one game would not change their view of him. Their actions have told a different story.

Now, Storen has not stated an eloquent case to be used in high-leverage spots with his performance this year. His ERA sits at 4.67, and in 29 appearances he has blown three saves. He has allowed an earned run in 10 appearances, which will inspire little confidence from a manager in a late-inning reliever.

Still, for a young pitcher, Storen has a track record. His struggles against lefties appear to be a blip – in his career he’s held lefties to a slash line of .251/.308/.352.  His general performance this season can be partly attributed to bad luck. Despite the lowest line-drive rate of his career, opposing hitters are batting .349 on balls in play against him. That’s not meant to be an excuse or a crutch, and it doesn’t mean Storen hasn’t pitched below his standard. But it has to be considered.

“He’s going to be fine,” Johnson said. “It’s just game situations. That’s all. … I think at first, it was a little bit of a different role. He was trying to do too much, trying to over-throw. I think he’s in a good place right now. So I’m not worried about it.”

Johnson added that another factor came into play Monday night when he chose Abad over Storen. Johnson has worried lately that Storen has too often warmed up without entering the game. During the top of the ninth inning, Johnson warmed up Abad, but not Storen, not wanting to wear down Storen in the event the Nationals did not tie the game.

Once Chad Tracy smashed the game-tying homer, Storen began warming. Johnson said he would have considered letting Storen face Revere to start the inning, but he felt Storen had not had time to properly warm up.

“I got Abad up for the simple reason I didn’t want to burn up Storen,” Johnson said. As a closer, “he would know he was going to come in. When he warms up, his first pitch is like 95. And he throws a lot. I’m trying to get away without having him warm up and not come in. It’s that simple. He hasn’t learned to throw and get loose. He throws hard from the get-go, but he’s not loose until he throws about 20 or 15.”

The bottom line is, Johnson chose Abad over Storen with a lefty at the plate. It was not necessarily an unsound strategy from Johnson in the moment. He was trying to maximize Abad’s strengths (getting out lefties, keeping runners on base), which also happened to be Storen’s weaknesses. But it is odd to see the Nationals take their one-time closer of the present and future and use him, even if for just a week, as a right-handed specialist.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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