Bad Company

Drew Storen has been optioned to AAA Syracuse.

This is a hard post for me to write, because I’ve been a huge Drew Storen fan since, well, ever. I’ve wanted him to succeed. I‘ve been a shameless Drew Storen apologist, even in the darkest moments.  But with Ryan Mattheus coming off the disabled list, and only twenty-five spots left on the active roster, someone had to go down. Drew Storen had an option year available. He has also had a disappointing year–so he had to be the one to go.

There’s going to be an awful lot written about Storen’s demotion, and even more said about it. The most pointed words probably come from fellow reliever and sometime roommate Tyler Clippard:

He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity. He came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. Came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a  98 win season. Picked me up when I was struggling in September. Picked our team up in the playoffs. Had one bad game. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself.

You know by now that I don’t like getting into ballplayer’s heads. I sit in the upper deck. I’m lucky if I can track the movement of the ball, let alone look into a man’s heart, mind, or soul at that physical and psychic distance.

If Storen needs to get back to something, perhaps this chart has some of the answers:

This chart tracks the sheer number of swings and misses generated by each of Storen’s four main pitches: the four-seam fastball, the sinker (two-seam fastball), the slider, and the change-up.

Between 2012 and 2013, you will note the sharp increase in swings and misses generated by his changeup–a pitch that he began throwing far more often. There is a corresponding drop in the number of swings and misses generated from both fastball varieties and from the slider–with the largest decline coming from the slider.

This puts in graphical form something that even upper-deck dwellers have begun to suspect: Storen’s slider–memorably described by Bob Carpenter as the “killer slider” on so many occasions–has lost much of its lethality.

If we take the number of line drives as a rough proxy for the number of times batters really squared up and made good contact, that should tell us more. Let’s look at the total number of line drives generated for each ball in play for each pitch, from the second half of 2012 through this month:

Oof. Look at that. Sharp increase in hard contact off the slider. A look at his pitch selection data reveals that he’s throwing, proportionally, more sliders than ever:

So what we have here is a pitcher throwing more of a pitch that is ever less successful. Storen seems to want to throw that slider a lot, even if he knows that it’s getting hit hard. This is not a recipe for success. What’s gone wrong with Storen’s slider?

First: it’s not as hard as it used to be: notice that it’s about 2 miles per hour slower this year than it was last year:

Second, it’s dropping a bit more: surely this is good? Yes and no. Some of the increased drop will be due to the drop in velocity we’ve already seen. If we look at it’s dragless vertical movement plus gravity, compared with release velocity, we note that the slider drops about as much as it ever did–except that now it’s just, well, slower. That’s not good. 

 

 

 

Third, it’s not, well, sliding as much as it did last year:

If there’s any hope here, it’s the emergence of Storen’s change-up as a weapon. Notice: it’s the only one of his pitches that is fooling more batters this year, rather than fewer. That’s something positive. And if Storen hopes to come back to hear the adoring crowds at Nats park howl his name ( DROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! ), then I hope for his sake that he goes down to Syracuse and works on the fastball/changeup combination that seems to be working.

While he’s down there, he could probably stand to work on his slider. He was a much more effective pitcher with a harder, more violent, more lethal killer slider. This year’s softer, milder slider has gotten him into trouble.

And whenever he’s ready, I’ll be back in the upper deck, waiting for him to return as the fine reliever that I know him to be.

 

[Edit: I had initially mis-interpreted the vertical movement graph, which led me to look at dragless horizontal movement plus gravity, which actually underscores the point better. Storen’s slider is dropping as much as it used to, but not because of any breaking motion…it’s dropping just becuase it’s slower. That’s an appealing target for a hitter, no?]

What the hell is the matter with Drew Storen?

Absolutely nothing.

Let me explain: Storen’s 2013 has been pretty bad, right? To date, Storen has a terrible 5.21 ERA. His FIP is a suitably terrible 4.26. How can I possibly say that nothing is wrong, especially when compared to his excellent 2012, where he posted a 2.37 ERA and a 2.40 FIP?

Look at the batted-ball data. In 2012, Storen only gave up 2 home runs all year. In 2013, he has surrendered 3. So, the question we have to ask is: is Drew Storen broken, or just unlucky?

Fortunately, we have a tool that might help us answer that question–it is xFIP, which is just like FIP, but normalized to a league-average HR/FB rate. A quick look at Storen’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP  with Storen’s FB% and HR/FB rate since 2010 gives us these data:

  • 2010: ERA: 3.58; FIP 3.26; xFIP 3.88; 40.3% FB, 5.0% HR/FB;
  • 2011: ERA 2.75; FIP 3.32; xFIP 3.14; 35.5% FB, 11.1% HR/FB
  • 2012: ERA 2.37; FIP 2.40; xFIP 3.52; 28.0% FB, 0.0% HR/FB
  • 2013, Year-to-date: FIP 5.21; FIP 4.26; xFIP 3.95; 37.1%, 13% HR/FB

What are we to make of this? Storen’s xFIP in 2013 is up, relative to what it had been: 3.95 isn’t great. But that’s in line with his 2010 xFIP of 3.88. And curiously, during his annus mirabilis of 2012, Storen posted an xFIP of 3.52–not at all what you’d expect, given his miniscule 2.40 FIP of that year.

If anything, we should look at the xFIP data and figure that the rest of Storen’s 2013 might look a little more like 2011 than 2012. Storen’s game depends on inducing weaker contact, and that means a HR/FB rate lower than league average.

And we have further evidence that Storen, in 2013, has been inducing weaker contact. His line-drive rate is currently 16.1%, which is lower than it was in 2012 (18.3%) or in 2011 (17.2%). Likewise, his ground ball rate in 2013 of 46.8% is down from 2012 (53.7%) and–you guessed it–in line with his 2011 ground ball rate of 47.3%.

So, what does that mean? When batters put the ball in play against Storen, they aren’t squaring it up (declining line-drive rate). They aren’t putting it on the ground as much, either (declining ground-ball rate). They are, however, hitting it up in the air. That should result in quick outs to Harper, Span and (eventually) Werth. But Storen’s been awfully unlucky so far, since his HR/FB rate is higher than the league average.

Once that HR/FB rate normalizes, his FIP will get ever closer to his xFIP–that’s hope for improvement. The declining ground ball and line drive rates are even more encouraging. Weaker contact should make for even lower HR/FB rates. There’s hope for improvement there.

Looking at Storen’s peripheral stats, then, there is plenty to suggest that his 2013 will not end as disastrously as it appears to have begun. Drew Storen is still Drew Storen–and that’s not all that bad.

Epilogue: You will notice that I haven’t addressed his mental state at all. Again, that’s because I have no way of knowing what the hell is going on in Storen’s head. The data we can measure, though, shows that Storen is at least capable of being better than he’s been lately, and that he’s got every chance to show it. If you want to think you know something about his mind, go ahead. But it’s bad enough for me to be an armchair baseball analyst without also becoming an unlicensed, upper-deck psychoanalyst in the bargain.

Silly Season

I went ahead and checked the #nats hashtag on twitter for the first time in ages.

Bad choice. Some damn fool is out there ranting about how Storen shouldn’t be back with the Nats, and looking at Rafael Soriano, the Yankees’ reliever, as a possible “savior.” This is the stupidest thing I have read in many weeks.

Go ahead. Compare Storen with Soriano head-to-head since 2010. They’re not all that different from one another, actually. So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like an implausible suggestion, if, for instance, Storen were to be injured or otherwise unavailable.

But consider that according to Cot’s Contracts, Soriano would be owed some $14 million in 2013. If he takes a $1.5 million buyout and becomes a free agent, it’s safe to assume that Rafa Soriano would demand a contract at least as generous as the one the Yankees had given him, and perhaps even more so. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Nats could sign him for whatever the Yankees would be due to pay him–14 million.

Now let’s look at Drew Storen. According to Cot’s, Storen made $498,750 in 2012. He’s arbitration-eligible this year, so he’ll be owed a raise in arbitration. We don’t know how much of a raise Storen will get [I’m hoping to figure that out in a few weeks–watch this space!], but let’s just stipulate right now that no arbitration panel could possibly award Storen a $14 million salary for next year.

One more thing, too: Drew Storen is 25 years old. Rafa Soriano is 32 years old.

So, you’re left with a choice between two substantially similar pitchers. One of them will cost you 14 million. The other will cost you, hell, let’s just say he’ll cost you 2 million. Why would you pay seven times more to get substantially the same thing, but seven years older?

If you’re seriously thinking that this sort of transaction is a good idea, I can only conclude that you hit your head on something hard when you drank yourself to sleep after Black Friday’s blown save.

The Human Element

Presented, by means of the TexasLeaguers’ Pitch/FX Database, the top of the ninth inning of last night’s game. Please pay attention to the two green dots inside the box.

Drew Storen, October 12, 2012, as called by Alfonso Marquez.

Drew Storen, October 12, 2012, as called by Alfonso Marquez.

The first green dot came during Allen Craig’s at-bat. It didn’t matter, because Craig struck out.

The second meant all the difference: The second green dot was to Yadier Molina. If that call had been correct, the Nats would have won.

Epilogue

Sometime after midnight, as the delirious twelfth of October gave way to the dismal thirteenth, with the bases loaded, with two out, with two strikes, a pitch left Drew Storen’s hand. Unfeeling robotic eyes would record it for posterity as a sinker, traveling at 94 miles an hour. Elsewhere in Nationals Park, perhaps forty-five thousand pairs of eyes watched it intently. The air throbbed with their shouting, as if they believed they could clear a path for it safely through the strike zone and into the waiting mitt of Kurt Suzuki.

The Cardinals Daniel Descalso swung his bat. Somewhere in front of the plate, the bat struck the ball, which now rebounded to shortstop Ian Desmond. It skipped on the infield dirt and struck his glove.

Forty-five thousand pairs of eyes already saw the end: Desmond would knock this baseball down, flip it to a waiting Danny Espinosa, and send those forty-five thousand watchers into ecstasy.

But in that instant, the visions diverged. Instead, on the field, the baseball uselessly off Desmond’s glove–too sharply to be fielded properly–and into the outfield. Two runs scored. The Nationals’ advantage vanished.

If you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good that your eyes, like those of many of the forty-five thousand watchers at this game, began to fill with tears at that instant. I can offer you no consolation. I wish I had some to offer myself.

I can only offer this thought: Every ball that leaves a pitcher’s hand–as that pitch left Storen’s–is little more than a roll of the dice. Innumerable, unimaginable things have to happen to that baseball. It has to leave the pitcher’s hand cleanly. It must travel the distance to the plate, through an ocean of air (and sometimes other things) . Once it reaches its destination, it has to hit something. If that something is a player’s bat, it strikes that bat in a particular way, spinning in yet another direction. To come to rest in a fielder’s mitt, it may bounce one or more times.

Every step along the way introduces a little bit of randomness; a little roll of the dice.

We don’t live our lives as hostages to Fortune, though. The pitcher has a good idea, roughly, of where his pitch will end up; a fielder, observing the ball, will have as good an idea of where to field it, and so forth. These ideas are not innate; they are learned by practice and observation–by seeing the patterns in a thousand thousand repetitions of the phenomenon.

But every so often, just enough randomness comes along. Maybe the ball doesn’t leave your hand clearly. Maybe the ball strikes a pebble. Maybe it’s cold, or maybe it’s too hot, or maybe it rained too much or not at all. Something you didn’t expect will change the path of that ball. You should have gotten it; you didn’t.

These variations are measurable and unique. Each little quirk is like one voice, telling a story. Over time–over a pitch sequence, an inning, a ball game, a series, a season, a career– the changes seem smaller and smaller, until each individual voice fades into the loud background hum of forty-five thousand people finding their seats, buying a hot dog, filling out a score card, and milling about before a ballgame.

That pitch, this game, this series: all of them together tell a certain story about the 2012 Nationals, and it isn’t a pretty one to hear. But looking back on a 2012 season that saw the Nationals amass 98 wins–best in all baseball–and play brilliant baseball almost every night? All of those moments together, telling their stories sound like a crowd in thunderous, rapturous applause.

So before you get down on the Nats for losing this series, step back. If you get far enough away, you will hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the howling of an umpire calling a third strike. You will hear the fireworks going bang zoom, and Charlie Slowes telling you about it; of F.P. Santangelo informing you of the death of a no-hitter; of the stranger in the next row cheering.

In all of that wall of sound, there will be a small, sad voice, describing the flight of that wayward pitch from Drew Storen’s hand.

Which would you rather hear?

Wild Ride

Mr. Walkoff did it again for the Nats at Opening Day in Nats Park…with a walkoff wild pitch!

It’s too bad the usually-reliable shutdown artist Brad Lidge blew the save in the top of the 9th. Gio Gonzalez’s pitching was a joy to behold from my perch in Section 309. Watching highlight reels of him grinning like a Little Leaguer after getting a hit? Amazing. How can I not love this kid?

Oh. Uh, ahemSorry. The Nats walk-off win at home today gives them sole possession of first place atop the National League East, a half-game ahead of the Mets. The Nats now have a record of 5 wins against 2 losses (.714 winning percentage!). They have scored 28 runs, allowing only 17.

If current trends hold, the Nats Pythagorean win expectation is .731. Wow.

How’s my model looking? Well, my preseason Natstradamus projection has the Nats scoring 26.66 runs by now and allowing 24.59 runs.

Even without Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, and Bryce Harper, the Nats are, to this point at least, outperforming my preseason projections. My rational mind knows this may not be sustainable. But when I’m sitting up in 309 and rooting for my Nats, it’s really really tough for me to care.

Looking at the Bullpen: Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Not even in my most optimistic moments would have said that the Nats would win two in a row out of the gate! As I write this on Easter Sunday morning, the Nats are sitting pretty, sharing first place atop the National League’s Eastern Division with the Mets (the Mets!).

And all this despite a lackluster debut for Gio “the Motown Kid” Gonzalez. The Nats won yesterday behind the unexpected heroics of former Hiroshima Carp Chad Tracy, and some absolutely phenomenal pitching from the “B” bullpen, with Craig “Matinee Idol” Stammen in long relief, followed by Ryan “Firework” Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, and some pitching from Hot Rod that was pretty frickin’ bueno.

The Nats’ late-inning heroics aren’t great to my stomach lining, though. I’ve been wondering how I could better quantify the feeling I have when relievers come in. I attempted this earlier, of course, when I introduced my heartburn index–but I’m now convinced that the heartburn index doesn’t give a complete picture.

Fortunately, FanGraphs has ridden to the rescue again, with a new, and, I think, extremely helpful, pair of statistics for measuring relief pitcher performance: Shutdowns and Meltdowns. As the proponent of the new stats explains them:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are two relatively new statistics, created as an alternative to Saves in an effort to better represent a relief pitcher’s value. While there are some odd, complicated rules surrounding when a pitcher gets a save, Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

Nats fans are by now intimately familiar with WPA, thanks to the hard work of Federal Baseball. The squiggly-lined graphs he pots after every game show the ebb & flow of the game as measured by WPA. A “Shutdown” happens when a reliever bends the line towards the Nats’ favor. A “Meltdown” happens when a reliever bends the line in favor of the opponent. The Shutdown/Meltdown stat pair thus give us a good indication of whether a reliever is helping or hurting his ballclub–which is kind of neat!

So what does that mean for the Nats bullpen in 2012? Using my standard measuring interval (2008-2011 seasons), here’s how the pitching staff looks:

 Name  Holds  Saves  Blown Saves  Shutdowns  Meltdowns  Heartburn
 Brad Lidge  9  100  16  92  28  6.85
 Tyler Clippard  64  1  18  77  35  5.22
 Sean Burnett  54  8  9  63  42  5.62
 Drew Storen  13  48 7  59  22  4.34
 Henry Rodriguez  13  2  4  13  13  8.51
 Tom Gorzelanny  7  1  2  12  5  6.01
 Ryan Mattheus  8  0  0  7  6  5.63
 Craig Stammen  2  0  0  5  2  4.09

A few things jump out at me at once:

  • Since 2008, Brad Lidge is unquestionably the Shutdown King of the current Nats bullpen. The 100 Shutdowns mean that he left his ballclub in a better position to win after his appearance than before one hundred times–and only made them worse 28 times. This makes me wonder whether Philadelphia unloaded him more because of his relatively high heartburn factor than any other measurable quality as a relief pitcher. On the other hand, Lidge’s ridiculous 2008 season may have gone a very very long way towards inflating his stats here. In any case, Lidge was pretty good on opening day this year.
  • We all know that Tyler Clippard is an awesome relief pitcher. He was an all-star in 2011. But now we have a clearer idea why. He’s second only to Lidge in shutdowns since 2008, and leads the staff in Holds.
  • Sean Burnett has collected 63 shutdowns since 2008–apparently, while I was averting my eyes in terror. The more I study him, the more I am forced to conclude that I have been terribly unfair to Burnett over the past few years.
  • We also now have a better idea why Drew “Batman” Storen is such a good reliever. He hasn’t been relieving nearly as long as Lidge, but he’s already accumulated 59 shutdowns. His 2.68 Shutdown/Meltdown ratio is second only to Lidge’s.
  • Henry “Hot Rod” Rodriguez is, by this set of measures, not even nearly in the same class as Storen or Lidge. 13 Shutdowns and 13 Meltdowns, giving him an abysmal SD/MD ratio of 1.00–the lowest on the staff. I’m still hoping that he will improve during 2012 and pitch to his potential, though.
  • Tom Gorzelanny has a shutdown/meltdown ratio of 2.40. That’s fourth, behind Lidge, Storen and Stammen. I guess he really is better as a reliever than as a starter? Then again, he’s only recorded 12 shutdowns, total–so maybe we don’t know enough about him to judge.
  • I was expecting a tighter correlation between high shutdown numbers and low heartburn index numbers. That’s not what we see. Lidge, for instance, ought to give me more heartburn than his shutdown numbers suggest. Mattheus looks pretty bad next to his heartburn near-equivalent Burnett–but then, Mattheus hasn’t had all that many chances yet.

If the Nats’ starting rotation can routinely get through 6 or 7 innings, there are enough high-shutdown arms in the bullpen to keep the game in hand. This is very encouraging news for the rest of 2012.