To be honest, part of this post was written before Sunday's game against the Dodgers. As I looked to the left field bullpen at the Rogers Centre and saw Drew Storen warming up for the eighth inning I wondered if I could be in for a rewrite. After all, the life of a major league reliever is that you're only as good as your last inning. Unfortunately a lot of those 'last innings' for Drew have been terrible this year. Not even regular terrible, absolute garbage fire terrible. Sunday was no exception. Therefore this did not have to be rewritten.
As we all know, Storen continued his cold streak in that eighth inning essentially blowing the game, leading to increased pressure for him to be demoted to a lesser role in the struggling bullpen. Certainly not a guy you enjoy giving $8.4 million to. When I first examined the start to Storen's year I settled on two different possible storylines. One was that the former Nationals closer has been mighty unlucky this year and should bounce back. The other was that Storen has pitched poorly. Which one is accurate? A little of both actually, although it's starting to lean towards the latter.
The 28-year-old has a BABIP of .417 which is sure to come down this year, but it's currently putting a damper on his traditional stats. He's also facing a strand rate on the south side of 60%, another "luck" measure that is well worse than his career norm. This all adds up to a ERA of 9.00. It's hard to look at his line and not say he's faced some bad fortune to kick off his tenure in Toronto.
Despite all this, it's certainly not time to conclude that Storen has been a victim of poor chance and chalk up his early season woes to inflated BABIPs and such. Oh no, the Indiana native has done his own fair share of contributing to this terrible start to the season. As most people know, Drew has lost about 2 MPH on every single one of his pitches during the early part of the year. You can see below, he isn't one of those regular slow starters such as Brett Cecil, who builds up his velocity over the first six weeks of the campaign.
Losing some zip on your pitches isn't the end of the world mind you, but for a reliever who used to rely on blowing hitters away with a fastball-slider combo, it certainly puts Storen behind the eight ball. The result? Anyone who has seen the righty pitch this year can tell you. Storen is getting crushed and fooling no one. It's a mysterious case of lost velocity, but there's no time for Storen to look back and wonder where the speed went. He's running out of time to right this ship before it's too late.
The eye test is backed up by the numbers as well, with Storen seeing less than 8% of balls in play being softly hit, while 46.2% have been classified as medium hit, the remaining 46.2% being hard. In the two seasons prior, that hard hit percentage hovered around 25%. That's a big increase that is partly a small sample size mirage that will regress a bit, but mainly just another indicator that Storen is getting hit very, very hard. It doesn't take a scout with trained eyes to realize that his pitches are being absolutely smashed by the opposition whenever he's on the mound. In 2014 and 2015 Storen gave up six home runs total, he's already surrendered half that mark just five weeks into the season.
It all comes down to pitches like the one below lacking the pop they used to have when Storen was having success. His elevated 92 MPH fastball is pretty much just a batting practice pitch now:
Despite all this, after Sunday's game Storen was quoted as saying,
You’re going to have these stretches... Just keep your head down & do your thing. There’s a reason I’ve had the career I have.
Unfortunately, Drew's 'thing' has changed completely over the course of one offseason. He now must find a way to either find the velocity that he lost, or work to mould himself into a more tactical reliever who relies less on gassing it by guys. When taking a look at Storen's FanGraphs' page, you begin to notice that a lot of his numbers actually haven't changed that much at all. His first pitch strike % is exactly the same as his career average, ditto with the rate hitters are making contact against him. He also is throwing the same pitch mix in the same parts of the zone.
Normally that's a good sign to not mess with a good thing, but in this situation where Storen has lost so much zip it's probably a smart time to start changing things around in search of a solution. What worked in Washington with a nasty fastball and hard slider obviously isn't working anymore. It especially is highlighted against left-handed hitters this year, who sit with a .588 wOBA against him thus far. A lot of small sample size involved again, but it makes sense that a pitcher with a slider as his main secondary who has always struggled against lefties is being pounded by them even more now that's he lost all the bite to his arsenal.
The solution isn't an obvious one as this Jays setup man resembles very little of the pitcher the team thought they were acquiring in exchange for Ben Revere in the offseason. If he continues to do the same thing and expect different results, beyond just insanity, Storen also risks losing his setup role in the bullpen and heading into free agency with his stock as low as it's ever been. That's not a very profitable venture.