It has been a superlative-laden start to 2014 for reliever Drew Storen - and a start that has also seen the righthander's performance at an all-time high. While the sample size is still small--15 1/3 innings pitched--the hot start has Storen amassing a 30.9 percent strikeout rate, 3.6 percent walk rate, 93 percent left on base percentage and a 2.10 fielding independent pitching, all of which surpass his current career bests in each statistic.
It's this sort of lights-out pitching from Storen that has the Nationals tied for third with the Cardinals and Padres for the best bullpen in the National League (by wins above replacement), something that has been a godsend for the team, whose starting rotation has scuffled, due to injury and inconsistent pitching, allowing them to stay within arms reach of the top of the National League East standings.
For Storen, these 15-plus innings have been a small taste of redemption for a 2013 season that saw him struggle with his mechanics and command of his pitches. Out of the struggles of last season, which included some time at Triple-A Syracuse, came some slightly revised mechanics as well as a further honed secondary pitch, both of which have been the backbone of his resurgence. Mechanically, the Storen of today displays a less stiff lead leg and slide step that was seen in 2013, scrapped in favor for a more conventional, moderately high leg kick--less of a kick seen when he first came to the majors--that focuses on maintaining his weight over his back leg, keeping him at this balance point slightly longer than in previous years. The slightly extended pause over the rubber allows for his arm to be in the proper slot at foot strike, thereby minimizing any issues with timing which can cause a pitcher to quicken their arm in order to get the proper slot to release the ball after their bodies have already initiated momentum downhill and towards the plate.
The results have made for improved command of all of Storen's pitches to go along with more pitches down in the zone, minimizing many of the over-the-plate mistakes that he gave up in 2013 that ended up in the stands, reflected in a career-worst 1.02 home runs per nine innings. Comparing his 2013 to this season in terms of strike rates, we find that much of the improvements in this department have come from with the changeup, going from 26.3 percent strike rate last year to this season's impressive 46.4 percent rate.
The changeup, in particular, has been a labor of love for Storen, who has historically used the pitch sparingly until last season; he pointed to the further refinement of the pitch as a key to success back in spring training, working on not only taking enough velocity off of it to be an effective foil to his fastball, but also keeping it down in the zone. Focus on the changeup has paid dividends, as the pitch, now thrown roughly 14 percent of the time, has generated whiffs an impressive 35.7 percent of the time, an all-time best for any pitch. While it remains a weapon used almost exclusively against lefthanded batters while ahead in the count or with two strikes, Storen has begun to show more confidence in the pitch, throwing it first-pitch against lefties 18 percent in 2014, up from 3 percent of the time last season.
To his credit, Storen has used the foibles of a lost 2013 season to retool and improve his game; this dedication to his craft is paying dividends in spades in 2014. While it remains to be seen if he can maintain this level of dominance all season and in higher leverage situations that he might get called in to extinguish should teammates Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano falter in later innings, the results thus far more than substantiate the hard work Storen has put in to make sure that the pitcher Nationals fans saw in 2013 remains a long forgotten memory.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.