Across 55 offerings in 2017, no one had been able to hit Drew Storen’s changeup. The pitch had been put in play, sure, but not a single batter had managed to reach base when facing it. Averaging 84 mph, a tick faster than his go-to slider, the changeup was and still is Storen’s swing-and-miss pitch.
On Saturday against the Rockies, he caught Alexi Amarista looking at his 56th changeup and Charlie Blackmon swinging over the top of his 57th. Then, with Blackmon in an 0-2 hole, four runs already across in the inning, and two outs, Storen reared back for his 58th. Blackmon, unfazed this time, looped a single in front of left fielder Adam Duvall, bringing in the fifth run of the inning. Storen trudged back to the mound. Two batters later, his 59th changeup ended the rally with a routine flyout to center.
Having become somewhat of the bullpen’s forgotten man, Drew Storen has put together an impressively mediocre 2017 campaign. His year can be summed up by his changeup—dominant except when it counts. With a 2.84 ERA in 19.0 innings pitched, Storen has done exactly what he was signed to do and nothing more, ho humming about his business and leaving the spotlight for the Reds relievers of the future.
Signed to a quick-and-easy one year, $3 million deal right after the new year, Drew Storen was slated to become the Reds’ primary closer in a closer-by-committee model. But, as with all good plans, that idea quickly fizzled out. Lights out Raisel Iglesias has served as the de facto closer with Michael Lorenzen as his setup man. Tony Cingrani has found himself on the disabled list and Wandy Peralta has emerged as a reliable replacement. Couple all of that with Bryan Price’s sudden desire to deploy his best relievers in the most critical junctions and you get Drew Storen, a man who once saved 43 games, pitching in the fifth inning with the Reds down one and runners on the corners.
Right now, Storen is what I call a bathroom break reliever. He’s (usually) brought on in a low-impact part of the game to get three quick outs and make his exit to the clubhouse. Or in other words, when Storen takes the mound, fans are treated to a quick bathroom break because the half inning is likely to go quick with little happenstance.
Saturday’s outing was a bit of an exception. When the righty entered the game in the top of the fifth, relieving starter Tim Adleman, there was already one run across and runners were on the corners. That situation translates to a 1.93 leverage index, or the high side of medium.
(Quick aside: Leverage index is a stat that measures the importance of game situations. 1.0 is average with anything below 0.85 recognized as low leverage and anything above 2.0 as high leverage. To contextualize in a non-baseball situation, I like to think of a baby and a burning building. If the building just started burning and the baby is sitting in the doorway to the outdoors, then that’s a low leverage situation because the baby is easily rescued. However, if the building has been burning for half an hour and the baby is on the third floor, then that’s high leverage because it’s going to be an adventure to rescue that baby. Storen’s fifth inning entrance with runners on the corners probably translates to a baby on the second floor of a just ignited building—there’s time to fix the problem but saving the baby won’t be easy.)
On the season, Storen has been used more in the bathroom break kind of situation. His average leverage index is 0.84, far lower than Iglesias’ 1.40 or Lorenzen’s 1.04. In that low leverage routine, Storen has excelled with a 1.98 ERA and 13 Ks in 13.2 innings pitched. However, when he has been called on for high leverage situations, such as on Saturday, Storen has struggled, posting a 5.06 ERA and with two blown saves in 5.1 innings.
That’s not to say that Storen hasn’t been effective for the Reds because he absolutely has. On any normal team, having a go-to guy to eat the middle innings without any sort of fanfare is a must. Being able to save the Iglesiases and Lorenzens for high leverage situations and not wasting them in the doldrums is key to a playoff run. But the Reds aren’t any normal team because the starting pitching staff of any normal team can average more than 5.0 innings per start. (The Reds average 4.93 innings per start for the curious.)
As a result, the Reds bullpen is perpetually gassed and everyone knows it. After Friday’s game, Bryan Price told the Cincinnati Enquirer, ““We either need a tremendous start (Saturday) or we need another pitcher or two in our bullpen.” Well, starter Tim Adleman didn’t make it out of the fifth Saturday and Storen couldn’t stop the bleeding, so the reliever just off the bus from Louisville, Asher Wojciechowski, had to go 3.0 innings.
Following the Saturday game, Price told the Enquirer, “You’re running out the guys you’re hoping the next day will help you win a game, and they’re having to pitch just to finish a game.” It’s this frenetic model of simply having enough bodies to play a full nine innings that has ruined the Reds’ bullpen of late. Storen can never sink into his role of getting the Reds through the doldrums if the doldrums stretch across four or five innings instead of two.
About three weeks ago, Nick Vorholt wrote for Blog Red Machine that “Storen is pitching well and has the experience to be a shutdown reliever. The Reds need to treat him that way and let him go,” ultimately advocating for Storen to appear in more high leverage situations. Maybe Vorholt has changed his mind with time, but that course of action is absolutely the last thing the Reds should do.
Drew Storen has the experience to be a shutdown reliever, yes, but this isn’t 2011 anymore. The Reds don’t need Storen to grab headlines, they just need their starters to grab the ball in the sixth inning. As long as I can go to the bathroom with the Reds in the field in the seventh, Storen’s $3 million would have been well spent.
And who knows, some team could still take a flyer on him at the deadline. Even though we suspect that Storen can’t pitch in high leverage situations, a 2.84 ERA still looks like a 2.84 ERA in any context. All Drew Storen has to do is keep throwing changeups and let Iglesias and Lorenzen handle the stressful parts.