Less than 24 hours after the Washington Nationals decided to option struggling right-handed reliever Drew Storen to the minor leagues, a move that marked a stunning fall from just two seasons ago and produced an emotional response from one teammate, the Nationals’ decision makers discussed how they plan to get Storen back on track.
Just how Storen went from being a closer who saved 43 games in 2011 and was equally as dominant against right-handed batters and left, to being a middle-reliever with a 5.95 ERA who struggled mightily with runners on base is likely a mixture of factors.
Depending on who you asked, it was mechanical, or it was mental. Or it was both.
“I think it’s a mechanical situation to where he needs to revert back to where he was when we drafted him, where he was in ’11,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “Mechanically, tempo-wise, arm slot and everything, clear his mind, come back with a fresh, clear mind and be able to help us.”
“A lot of it is mental,” said pitching coach Steve McCatty. “He just needs to get back out there. When you’re confidence (is shaken) and you don’t trust your mechanics and have things go bad, it’s a tough way to go back out there and try and pitch in a big league game. It’s not fair to Drew or to the team. We’ve got to go back and get him right. Where his mechanics are on a regular basis and get him to throw like he’s capable of.”
So this is where the Nationals are now, sending Storen into the hands of Triple-A pitching coach Greg Booker and pitching coordinator Spin Williams, who’ve had great success in helping other players regain a previous form.
The first thing they will work with Storen on is his leg load, which had been more a straight-leg hip swivel during his most successful times as a closer.
There are downsides to that move, though, including being slow to the plate, so the team would like Storen to return to a higher type of leg left that he used when he was first drafted by the Nationals in 2009.
“I always thought the (leg lift) looked to me more athletic. I like it better,” McCatty said. “Right now he’s flying off his arm slot, release point is not the same and everything gets effected. It’s a snowball effect. He’s going to go back to the original leg lift, doing the things that you need to do to hold runners on and also work on getting that arm slot back, getting that release point back, getting that confidence back.
“That’s the way he likes to load (with a straight leg),” McCatty said. “But it makes him slow to the plate. We all know we have a hard enough time with base stealers as it is, but when you’re firing up a 1.60 (seconds) to the plate, that’s part of your job. Everybody’s got to get better. We’re trying to get him back to a much more athletic position where it’s a lot easier to repeat your pitches.”
They also need Storen to improve his focus on baserunners.
As a closer, Storen put fewer runners on base and hardly ever entered with them already there. Players were also less likely to run on him, for fear of giving up an out in the ninth inning. Pitching in the seventh and eighth innings, however, was a different story. McCatty stressed the need to pay attention to runners and quicken his pace in his chat with Storen.
“I always tell all of them, you’re always better when you’re quicker,” McCatty said. “It might not feel right but your stuff’s usually better when you’re quicker to the plate.”
When the Nationals announced the move on Friday night, hours after using Storen in a game despite him being so sick with the flu that he required IV fluids, according to a source, manager Davey Johnson mentioned the fact that Storen had never really faced adversity. He was a first-round pick, spent minimal time in the minor leagues, and had great success as a closer.
So now, Storen faces adversity in trying to right his performance, and a demotion. How he responds from here will dictate how quickly he returns to the major leagues — which is what the Nationals want.
“It all depends on how you want to take it,” McCatty said, though asked if Storen was “receptive” to his conversation late Friday night, McCatty said “I don’t think receptive is the word.”
“We’ve all been sent down. You can go down with the attitude that you’re mad and take your time doing it and be down there longer, or go down and say ‘I’m going to get this conquered as quick as I can and get back to the big leagues.’ What he does and how he handles his business is up to him.”
Rizzo said he spoke with Storen at length again on Saturday, but he deflected the notion — brought to the forefront by the comments of reliever Tyler Clippard — that the Nationals’ decision to bring in Rafael Soriano this offseason affected Storen, mentally, from the get-go and made it more difficult for him to move past the Nationals’ collapse in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
“I don’t see the reason why it should’ve,” Rizzo said. “He’s a mentally-strong person with good stuff. Getting an established closer with a great track record, we felt there was another guy that added depth and power to the end of the bullpen.”
Rizzo spoke with Clippard, as well, about his comments.
“We’ve got an open-door policy here,” Rizzo said. “His opinion means a lot to me. I disagree with his assessment of the situation, but you fight to the death to let them speak their mind and say what they want. And that’s what makes these guys what they are on the mound. You’ve got to have a certain type of attitude and makeup to pitch in the latter-end of these games. They’re a competitive bunch.
“The one thing I’ve never shied away from is when we have a discussion, we have it man-to-man, eye-to-eye, and I certainly can take his opinion. Like I said, I don’t agree with it, but I commend him for having a strong opinion on it.”
In a week that featured the Nationals dismissing hitting coach Rick Eckstein, losses in five of seven games played, and the demotion of another player who’d once been a clubhouse fixture, the Nationals tried to look forward on Saturday morning.
“I love Drew Storen,” Johnson said. “He’s a gamer. He likes challenges. He felt like he could straighten it here. He probably could. We do need him. If he gets it right, which I have a good feeling he will, then he’ll be back here soon. Those are tough ones.
“I always feel like you do what’s best for the player. And he might still struggle if he was here. I think he’s got a better mental approach going forward. He was talking to McCatty a long time. When he was there, I liked what he was saying.”