Drew Storen had a chance last year to speak with Mariano Rivera, so he posed the question every pitcher who gets the chance to speak with Rivera asks: “Can you teach me your cutter?” Storen wanted the secret to baseball’s most unassailable pitch. Over a 45-minute conversation, Rivera shared a different kind of secret, a tip that surprised Storen, a lesson he would not forget.
“Right away, he goes, ‘You don’t need it,’ ” Storen said over the phone Thursday morning, as he drove to a workout in his hometown Indianapolis. “ ‘You got 43 saves at the big league level. You don’t need my cutter.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ He goes, ‘You got everything you need. If you make the most of what makes you successful, then you’ll be successful.’ ”
Storen thought of those words this season at the lowest point of his major league career. On July 26, the Nationals demoted Storen – once a 10th overall pick, a reliever who had collected 43 saves at age 23 – to Class AAA Syracuse. When he was sent to Syracuse, he had a 5.95 ERA and the league was hitting .295 against him. He had problems with his approach, his control and his mechanics, but they all stemmed from one source. He had stopped using what made him successful.
“So,” Storen said, “I needed to get back to that.”
Over the course of three weeks in the minors, Storen rediscovered his pitching self. After he returned on Aug. 16, Storen allowed three earned runs over 19 1/3 innings, striking out 15 and walking six. He remodeled his delivery, altered his pitch mix and improved his command by recommitting to the way he ascended in the first place.
With the help of Pitchf/x data from Harry Pavlidis, the differences in the way Storen pitched before and after his demotion can be clearly dissected.
During his stint in Syracuse, Storen changed everything. His switch from an exaggerated, stiff-legged delivery to a quick leg kick has been well-documented. Within that change, though, Storen also shifted his arm slot. The leg kick made him more natural and athletic, and he released the ball, on average, about three or four inches closer to the third base side of the mound.
When our man Pavlidis went over the data, he wondered if Storen had moved a few inches on the rubber. Storen said he did not. “Was my release point different?” Storen asked. He was told that, yes, the ball was coming out of his hand about three or four inches to the left, from the catcher’s perspective.
“That makes sense,” Storen said. “I felt like when I was doing the straight-leg, I had to worry about my arm slot. For me, that was something I never had to do. I never had to worry about getting on top of the ball. I was never a guy that threw over the top. I’m not like [Craig] Stammen or somebody that really got on top. I was a high-three-quarters guy. That’s what gave me the movement to both sides.
“When I got my twist and my leg kick back, it just allowed me to let my arm fall where it was. I think it made my arm slot more consistent, and not having to worry about it, it was so much easier. It was just, ‘Hey, lift-and-throw,’ instead of, ‘Okay, lift, get your arm up, and get on top of it.’ For me, if I think about creating downhill plane, I’m losing that arm action. I’m losing the whip. And all that stuff is hurting me. If I’m doing things the right way, the downhill plane will take care of itself.”
The difference in release point gave Storen more movement on his fastball, even as he threw more four-seamers, which in general tend to be straighter than two-seamers. It also allowed him to locate more pitches down and away to right-handed hitters. Look here at how often he lost pitches high and to his arm side to right-handers — or right down the middle — before the demotion:
Once he returned, Storen had more success peppering the outside corner. With the natural fade on his fastball back, he could pitches just off the corner and let them swing back for strikes:
Against left-handed hitters, Storen’s improvement in command is even more obvious. He may have been criticized for nibbling around the strike zone, but his true problem seemed to be firing too many meatballs. When he threw his fastball to left-handed hitters, his most frequent placement was right down the middle:
That big, red blotch is death on a stick. Storen also had a tendency to miss to his arm side, and he treated pitching inside to lefties as if it may lead to a communicable disease. It is little surprise that, in all of 2013, left-handers slugged .485 off Storen.
But Storen changed that in the season’s final month and a half. He threw 79 fastballs to left-handed hitters once he returned from Class AAA, and only three traveled down the middle. He still wasn’t pitching inside with his fastball to lefties, but he stopped grooving them down the chute:
For Storen, all of those center-cut fastballs came as a result of his mindset. He would focus so hard on trying to precise – don’t nibble, don’t leave it over the middle, don’t get your arm slot wrong, don’t miss high – that he would press and make a bad pitch.
“In golf, when you’re like, ‘I really don’t want to hit the ball in the water here,’ what do you do?” Storen said. “You hit the ball in the water. My sinker was getting to the arm side of the plate, and that’s right where those lefties love it. My slider was sharper once I got my leg kick back. And it comes down to making guys uncomfortable. I think more than anything, it comes down to attacking guys. If you can make them uncomfortable, you’re going to see better results.”
In an effort to be more aggressive, Storen resolved to throw more four-seam fastballs. And he did. He shelved his sinker and relied less on his changeup. His slider usage remained about the same. But mostly, he was coming straight at batters rather than trying to fool them:
Storen could thrive with a four-seam-heavy approach because, simply, his new delivery led to a better four-seam fastball.
“I always had a fade to my four-seam,” Storen said. “At the same time, my velo was better. It was just heavier, and it came out cleaner. All these little things we’re talking about, that’s the difference between a clean inning and giving up a three-spot – a matter of inches on your arm slot. It’s just so funny. You’re not that far away from being dominant in the big leagues. There’s a fine line between being awful and really good. That’s one of the main things that I learned.”
The end of his season gave Storen renewed confidence heading into the winter. “I feel comfortable in what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t need to create perfect mechanics with a motion that’s not necessarily as natural to me. Right now, I feel way far ahead of where I did last year at this point. Fun is the easy word that comes to mind.”
It did not necessarily give him certainty. Storen’s name has surfaced in trade talks before, most heavily in 2011, when the Nationals nearly dealt him to the Twins for Denard Span. Storen will be eligible for arbitration for the second time, and he figures to earn a raise from $2.75 million (which includes a $250,000 incentive for finishing 20 games) to roughly $3.5 million.
If the Nationals put together a package to deal for a starter, he would be a logical fit – they have depth in the bullpen, and he would offer a new team three more years of contractual control. Storen may become their closer of the future, starting in 2015, just like the Nationals expected all along. Or he may be trade bait for another team looking for a late-inning reliever. He has learned not consume himself with any of it.
“I’ve said since Day 1 – I want to stay in D.C., ideally for my whole career,” Storen said. “It’s tough when you’re a bullpen guy. It’s one of those things, I think after I dealt with it in 2011, you just become detached from it all. You just really don’t know. After a while, you just let chips fall where they may. There’s just no way to control it.”