The Washington Nationals are a mess. Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper both called out Nats fans within the last week. Just a couple nights ago, manager Matt Williams was booed by fans looking in on his post-game press conference. They are in disarray, and that’s putting it kindly.
In being swept by the New York Mets, Washington lost some serious ground. They are now seven games back for the NL East division lead. Even worse, they are 9.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. Surely, Mets fans with any memory of September 2007 won’t feel comfortable until the final day, but things are looking good for the Amazins. With that harsh reminder that anything is possible with three weeks to go, things are looking pretty gloomy in Washington.
After a tough month, Drew Storen appears to be the new whipping boy and scapegoat combined. Before August, Storen was having arguably his finest season yet. That was before he lost the primary closer role in Williams’s bullpen to Papelbon. So what has gone into a disastrous five weeks that saw his ERA jump from 1.64 to 3.44 in exactly 40 days?
I think we should start by going back to August 7, when Storen gave up a go-ahead grand slam to Carlos Gonzalez. He drew the dubious distinction of compiling both the blown save and loss for that game.
That’s a fastball parading down the middle of Broadway, just waiting for CarGo to spank it into the bullpen (ironically) on a line drive. Wouldn’t you know it, that’s a power zone for Gonzalez. If you head on over to FanGraphs and look at his ISO heat map, you’ll see. That granny is the beginning to a 16-day stretch in which Storen coughed up 11 of his 21 earned runs on the season. His ERA gained almost a full two runs in that span. He also served up two of his four total homers on the season in that exact same time.
Now, I’m not a licensed mental health practitioner, but that has got to get to you. Did Storen have the pitcher’s version of “The Yips” during that stretch? He certainly calmed it back down through his next seven appearances. From August 26 to the September 6, despite a blown save on the September 1, Storen shaved 0.28 runs from his ERA.
Then the wheels came off again. Tuesday night, when Storen entered in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and a four-run lead, he gave up a double, walk, another walk, yet another walk, and a fly ball. After all is said and done, the game was tied 7-7. That was blown save number five on the year; two more and he’d be Fernando Rodney. Wednesday night, Storen hung a 1-0 slider to Yoenis Cespedes and he deposited it into a jubilant, jumpin’-‘n’-hoppin’ Mets bullpen.
All of these disastrous outings have come since his removal from the ninth-inning role. Just check this tweet from ESPN Stats & Info.
Drew Storen ERA by Inning This Season 7th-8th 6.41 9th 1.62
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 10, 2015
So, I dug into some numbers to see what changes have occurred since July 30 (effectively when he started pitching in the seventh or eighth innings).
For his career, Storen has thrown his four-seam fastball 1,666 times. He has surrendered a home run 6.37 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball and their exhaustive PITCHf/x database. He’s thrown his slider 1,696, with a 5.45 percent home run rate. Since July 30, the numbers balloon in alarming fashion. Storen has given up a home run 22.22 percent of the time on 115 four-seamers and 11.11 percent on 104 sliders. So, he’s doubled his home run rate on his heretofore dominant slider and nearly quadrupled the rate on his fastball. Sample-size queens please refrain, I understand. Yet, these rates raise questions beyond just what inning Storen pitches.
Furthermore, if you check out heat maps again, this time for Storen, you’ll see some bloated numbers in the two zones where Cespedes and CarGo took him deep. First, Storen’s 2015 map before the arrival of Papelbon.
Then, those blazing hot zones since being relegated to the 7th and/or 8th inning.
It is impossible to tell if this is an ongoing trend. Can Storen adjust to his new role and return to form? It seemed like he had started to before the series with the Mets. The most unfortunate aspect for Storen moving forward is how this might affect his arbitration process. His one-year deal ends when the season does and then he will be arbitration eligible for the first time. He has three weeks left to salvage the situation.