LAKELAND, Fla. — It would be easy to look at some of Drew Storen’s outings this spring and wonder. The numbers haven’t always been pretty, though the overall stat line could be worse.
Even he knows that he’s allowed at least two hits in five of seven appearances. How alarming is that? There were only six appearances during the 2012 regular season in which Storen, who pitched in 37 games, allowed two or more hits.
“He’s thinking too much,” manager Davey Johnson said Saturday. “When you try to be that precise, it’s kind of paralysis by analysis. I want him to just trust his stuff and pitch. He’s got great stuff, he knows how to pitch.”
But before the panic levels begin to rise, within the Nationals’ complex and outside of it, there seems to be a method to the right-hander’s madness. Still young enough that this is just his fourth spring training, Storen finally has made the important distinction between what he’s trying to do and what the results mean.
“You look at it as an opportunity to test-drive things,” Storen said Sunday morning, less than 12 hours after he allowed three earned runs off four hits and a walk to the Houston Astros. “I go into an outing going, ‘OK, what am I going to do to get the most out of this outing?’”
This year that process has been more deliberate and, perhaps, slower.
In 2011, when Storen went through a difficult spring training, the stress of it and the possibility of not making the team wore on him. He saved 43 games that season. In 2012, he ramped himself up to full speed so early, he wonders if it dislodged the bone chip he had removed April 11 that cost him more than half the season.
He displays none of that anguish this year because he knows where he is in his own progression.
“Before, it was, ‘I need to be me every time I’m out there,’” Storen said.
What the slightly older, but certainly wiser, Storen figured out during rehab from that elbow surgery was that building up is a level-to-level process. He learned how to throw at 80, 85, 90 and 95 percent, learned how to work to gain his command at each level before he pushed himself to the next, and learned that the opportunity to try new things shouldn’t be wasted. He used his change-up almost three times as often in 2012, the product of the work he did with it during his rehab.
At this point, Storen, who Johnson often calls “the tinkerer,” is working on a few different things. He’s focused on fastball command, throwing more of them than he perhaps would in a regular game situation, and he’s working to bring them down. Two outings ago, when he gave up two hits and a run to the New York Mets, Storen’s fastballs were high. Saturday night, when he felt he was “letting it go” pretty good, they were lower, but still too high.
When he pitches again Monday, the hope is that his mechanics will be that much more fine-tuned and those pitches will be even further down, out of the danger zone.
As part of that work, he’s also throwing pitches in counts that he normally would not. When he’s faced major league hitters, he’s been pleased with the results — but he says that’s most likely because he’s stuck more to his usual plans.
“It’s just kind of inching your way into the deep end of the pool,” Storen said. “I like to see good results but if I feel like I’m taking a step forward every time, which I have been, you take it with a grain of salt. … Results-wise it didn’t improve, but stuff-wise, pitching-wise, it did.”
Opening Day is two weeks away. He knows he’s got plenty of time.