Last week, the Reds reached a one-year agreement with reliever Drew Storen. The club will pay the 29-year-old pitcher $3 million, an additional $1.5 million in performance bonuses and $500,000 if he’s traded. The deal’s impact won’t be felt in wins and losses. And since it’s only for a year and a tiny amount of cash by MLB standards it doesn’t alter the trajectory of the Rebuild one way or the other.
But what caught my eye was the reasoning Dick Williams offered and the profound break it made from the recent past.
Let’s start with Williams’ comments on the WLW Hot Stove show:
“Yeah, I think fans should be really excited about this addition to the club, Drew. Not only a local kid, but a guy that’s had a lot of success pitching at the end of ballgames for successful teams. A high-leverage situation type guy.”
“He’s going to fit in real well with us. He’s got a great personality, good make-up and a good track record. We think last season was a little bit of an aberration for him and created an opportunity. We swooped in and took advantage of it. I think it’s a win-win signing that gives him a good opportunity. Gives us a real good pitcher at the back end of the game.”
Jim Kelch encouraged Williams to support the Storen deal by citing the reliever’s ERA from the whopping 18 innings he pitched at the end of 2016 for Seattle. Not only didn’t Williams bite, he pushed back on that thinking:
“Relievers, it’s hard to look at small sample sizes for guys like this. Drew had a six-year track record over in Washington and showed the ability to get things done. Sometimes when you switch leagues you’re facing new hitters, you’re pitching in a new park, a lot of things change about your environment. He struggled. He did make adjustments later in the year and finished strong.”
Williams then elaborated an important line of reasoning.
“(Storen’s down year in 2016) created an opportunity for us. It’s not typical you can find a guy with a track record like that available to a team like us. So, there’s going to be something there that scared teams off a little bit. … There are no risk-free signings at this end of the spectrum.”
“But the underlying fundamentals were strong. His walk-rate stayed low. His strikeouts stayed up. We emphasized adding pitchers in the bullpen that had command and control; that get ground balls. And he fits that category.”
Williams threw a little shade at evaluating pitchers based on ERA.
“Last year, even though he had the higher ERAs, the things he could control, the walks and strikeouts were still good. We hope that means he’s primed for a bounce back year.”
Williams had used many of these themes in a conference call with local writers earlier in the day: (transcript courtesy of C. Trent Rosecrans)
“Like I said before, keeping the strikeout rates consistent with his career averages, keeping the walk rates consistent with his career averages. He really had kind of a higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP) than he had in most all of his seasons historically. The fact that he was still able to control the ball with a good three-pitch mix, we saw a guy with a very consistent track record before last year.”
“He pitched with two new teams, facing new divisions, a lot of moving around. He was used a little bit differently, pitched in lower leverage situations. We hope to get him back to some of these higher leverage situations. We think the command will still be there. We think he will fit in nicely with the guys we’ve got.”
Williams addressed the decline in Storen’s fastball velocity:
“We saw the numbers. We know [the velocity] was down a little bit last year. At the end of the season, the fastball was up around 93 his last [game] of the year. We still think he can be very effective in that range. He’s got a good three-pitch mix. I think he can be effective where he is.” (Mark Sheldon)
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That the Reds spent $3-5 million on a reliever for the 2017 season doesn’t merit a banner headline. Maybe Drew Storen will pitch well enough the Reds can move him to a contender and get back a decent prospect. About a dozen relievers were traded to contenders at the 2016 deadline. Otherwise, we’re talking about 65 innings.
Storen does check several conventional boxes: (1) only 29 years old, (2) experience with high-leverage pitching, and (3) success with high-leverage pitching.
Given the pittance and short duration the Reds were rightly offering, their options were going to be limited. Read this carefully as you fret over a few numbers on Drew Storen’s FanGraphs player page: Any pitcher who had a good 2016 season would not be in the Reds market. None of the relievers available in their niche would be unblemished. The tricky task for the Reds front office was to select from among those flawed pitchers one they figured likely to bounce back.
That’s where the Reds front office took a modern and encouraging turn.
The front office liked Drew Storen based on outcomes a pitcher can most control like BB% and K% instead of fielding- or sequencing-dependent stats like ERA. They were attracted to Storen because they believed a chunk of his high BABIP was the product of bad luck. They valued the large sample size of Storen’s 6-year record over the small sample sizes of Storen’s 2016.
Sweet music indeed to the ears of saber-inclined Reds fans.
Yes, Drew Storen will arrive to GABP packing red flags that aren’t just the ones flashing his new wishbone-C. Anyone who signs for $3 million and one year isn’t peddling a sure thing.
And before we hail the glorious arrival of a new, unbound Reds front office, a bit of perspective. The Drew Storen deal is one, small acquisition and the rationale offered speaks merely to tactics, not strategy. The organization may well remain prisoner to any number of crippling big-picture biases. We’ll find out in the coming year as more important moves are made.
But it’s heartening that the new voice and leader of the Reds front office explained its collective thinking – at least in this instance – in ways that make sense in the analytics-based century. It’s a sea change from chasing RBI-guys, worrying about hitting with runners in scoring position, creamy veteran grit-mania and dugouts full of last decade’s Cardinals.