Before Drew Storen became the late-September bullpen savior for the Washington Nationals in 2014, before a career that saw him rush through the minors, dominate for most of 2011, blow a late, famous lead in 2012 and struggle in 2013-Drew Storen majored in product design as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford.
And that's a useful window into his evolution from the two-pitch pitcher who saved 43 games in 2011 to the 2014 vintage, he of the 1.29 ERA and recently, three saves in three days to stabilize a bullpen in need of help, given Rafael Soriano's struggles.
"I think there's certainly some parallels there," Storen said when I asked if he thought of himself as a product redesign. "I'm one of those people who's never really satisfied. I'm always looking to make something better. It's the way I've always been since I was a kid.
"I always wanted a changeup. It took me 25 years to come up with a changeup," he added, chucking under his breath as he said it. "But not being happy with the status quo goes into it -- it's the same thing as, with products, trying out new things and seeing what works."
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So while Storen's excellent 2014 may seem surprising -- his ERA was 4.52 last year, or roughly three times what it is now -- it is nothing less than a pitcher using an unexpected period of extra time -- the period that he recovered from surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow-to alter his approach to pitching.
Storen, when he arrived in the major leagues, featured primarily a two-seam fastball, a four-seamer, and a slider. But before he'd even gotten to the major leagues, or even reached professional ball, he'd already begun thinking about what the version after the Storen who stormed through Nationals affiliates would be.
"I was always a fan of K-Rod growing up," Storen said. "Closing in college, I really looked up to him. I saw how effective he was -- as his velocity went down, he set the saves record when he started throwing a changeup. And I thought, if I want to stick around, and have a career as long as his, I better do this."
"And I knew I'd have this chunk of time with the surgery, to make the most of the time. You're in a rehab program, you're forced to develop more of a feel, because you're throwing at a certain percentage [of strength]. Which, before I got hurt, I wasn't doing that much -- I was kind of pedal-to-the-metal all the time. I knew, by doing that, I could develop a feel for the changeup, so it really was a perfect opportunity."
Photo credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
It is worth pointing out: this is not some pitcher maturing, deciding as he went to add a new pitch to try and survive. Storen wanted to throw a changeup as far back as that K-Rod season of 62 saves in 2008, a summer he was still an undergraduate at Stanford.
"In '08, that would have been when I was up playing at the Cape [Cod summer league]", Storen said. "And so I would see him pitch against the Red Sox. And I was closing there -- and that's when I started working on the changeup. I would toss around different grips and-it didn't really go so well. And I kind of messed around with it my sophomore year of college. But I really hadn't found a grip that I liked and felt comfortable with. And that kind of kickstarted the whole thing.
"And like I said, when you have that two or three month period where you're really taken out of throwing, and you have to rebuild everything, I figure this is the time to really master it."
It's notable, however, that while Storen attempted to master this new pitch, he subsequently struggled on the field for the first time in his career. The Nationals, who'd brought in Soriano to close in 2013, tried using Storen in middle relief, but he was hit hard enough that they sent him to the minor leagues in late July. That drew the anger, publicly, of Storen's close friend and bullpen mate, Tyler Clippard.
Now, Clippard and Storen are two of the biggest cogs in a bullpen ranked fifth in the major leagues in ERA this season.
"It's been fun to watch," Clippard said to me while we chatted in front of his locker, Clippard holding his own bobblehead, a relatively common occurrence in a baseball clubhouse. "In baseball, the development process is part of being a professional. A lot of people don't get to see that transition that people make, because a lot of times that transition happens in the minor leagues. Now with Drew, he came up and was such a high draft pick and had all this talent, he just came in guns a-blazing, and people saw the failures. He obviously had a lot of success, but it 2013, he obviously had to learn a little bit of who he was as a pitcher, and some of those things that he wanted to do on the mound.
"But the stride that he made, from last year to this year, is unbelievable. He's throwing all three pitches for strikes."
And he's throwing all three pitches often. While he evolved in 2013, Storen threw his changeup less than ten percent of the time. In 2014, he's thrown the changeup 18 percent of the time. And since July 1, Storen's up over 21 percent changeups. In a neat statistical oddity, he'd thrown exactly 72 sinkers, 72 changeups since July 1 entering Thursday night's game.
So while much has been made of Storen's mechanical adjustments last summer-his delivery altered, simplified-neither Storen nor his pitching coach, Steve McCatty, ascribe the new success to a mechanical change as much as the new mix of pitches. Storen described the new delivery as "going back to the way I used to throw", rather than something new.
"I couldn't say that, one way or the other," McCatty told me when I asked whether the delivery or the changeup made the biggest difference, when we chatted in the dugout Thursday afternoon. "Drew is a tinkerer. He always has been, since he's been with us, he's a tinkerer. He is regardless, if he's going good, if he's going bad -- he'll really go to work on what he does."
I asked McCatty what you do to encourage or even coach a player so eager to learn and change.
"Let him do what he wants to do," McCatty said. "You gotta have confidence in the guy."
Photo credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
It's clear the Nationals have that confidence in Storen now. When Clippard criticized the organization's handling of Storen last year, he cited bringing in Soriano to close in 2013. But this month, with Soriano's ERA up more than two runs from his season-low 0.97 on July 19, Storen took over ninth-inning duties, and performed as he has all season.
It may well be that another evolution has given Storen a late-season edge: self-preservation.
"I try to limit my pitches as much as possible," Storen said. "I had the opportunity to talk to Trevor Hoffman, and he threw eight, I think, before he went in. So it's a matter of saving the bullets. The more experience you have, the more you trust. You don't doubt yourself. You know you're going to be ready."
The results have been Hoffmanesque. And while Storen might never be known for the changeup precisely the way Hoffman is, he now throws it 33 percent of the time to lefties, first pitch of the at-bat. That new pitch is now his top option against them to start.
I asked Matt Williams whether he'd planned on Storen pitching this well in 2014, or if his re-emergence had come as a surprise.
"I just think we look back to a couple of years ago, he had a whole bunch of saves, pitching in games," Nationals manager Matt Williams said from the visiting dugout Thursday afternoon. "He was our seventh inning guy or our eighth inning guy, depending upon who was available, going into the season. And he certainly has experience closing. So he takes the ball whenever we ask him to. And he's able to fill those roles at any time. So to answer your question: yes, we expected him to be a good pitcher. He has been for some time now.
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"He goes out there with the intention of getting three outs. Lately, it's just been the ninth."
If anything, Storen is a better pitcher than he's ever been. And it's worth considering that, in light of Soriano's problems, the likely appearance by the Nationals in the playoffs next month, and just where that may leave Storen.
Unfairly, he was scapegoated for the NLDS loss in 2012 to the Cardinals, a loss that became bigger for Nationals fans when the team underachieved in 2013 and missed the playoffs, while Storen struggled.
But it is notable that the Nationals have the fifth-best ERA among bullpens in 2014. They were 17th in 2013. If you simply replace Storen's 2013 season with his 2014 campaign? The 2013 Nationals jump all the way to fifth.
Suddenly, redemption is in sight for Storen, and seemingly at the best possible time.
I asked Storen if he'd thought about that, a return to the postseason stage where he'd had his most famous blown save.
"No, I just think about it in terms of winning," Storen said, sounding like a product ready for its new October rollout. "But it's a funny game. And things do come full circle in this game, if you do the right thing... Being there was an absolute blast. And now, having the opportunity to do it again, and now, with the experience I've had? I'm pretty excited."