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Examining Drew Storen as possible bullpen help

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Reliever Drew Storen is available. Should the Cardinals be interested?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Storen was designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, meaning they have a window to either trade or release him which would result in them picking up what's left of his $8 million plus salary. The Cardinals have implied publicly that they're interested in upgrading their bullpen, and given the Mozeliak regime's tendency to make small (as opposed to big) bullpen splashes near the deadline, it's worth exploring if a struggling Storen could be a possible bargain down the stretch.

Let's get this out of the way, Storen has been pretty bad this year. In 33.1 innings pitched, he has an ERA north of six and has been worth below replacement level by fWAR. Only a year removed from being a well-above average relief arm for the Nationals when he completed 29 of 34 save opportunities before Jonathan Papelbon came in to assume the role, the Blue Jays were hoping for a quality setup guy instead of the situation they're faced with now. But let's focus for a second on those numbers from just a year ago. Below are his 2015 stats compared to league average for relief pitchers the same year:

2015

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Storen

55.0

29.4%

7.0%

3.44

2.79

3.24

MLB Average

n/a

22.1%

8.6%

3.71

3.83

3.90

That came on the heels of 2014, when he led all NL relief pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched with a 1.12 ERA, which was aided by a 90.6 strand rate and a BABIP forty points under league average. Still, while everyone values relievers differently, it wasn't hard to see what the Blue Jays saw in Storen when they traded for him in January.

Of course, that he's not very good in 2016 seems to be what's most important. Below are his 2016 stats compared to league average for relief pitchers:

2016

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Storen

33.1

20.5%

6.4%

6.21

5.00

4.36

MLB Average

n/a

22.5%

8.9%

3.93

4.03

4.12

Sheesh. Here's the thing, relievers are fluid though. They're often called on in high-leverage situations and by design their stats are derivative of small samples. Most relievers' careers are spent bouncing around from team to team. That their numbers might fluctuate from one setting to another or from year to year should not be immediate cause for alarm.

The most recent Cardinal example who best illustrates the above-paragraph might be John Axford. The Cardinals acquired him late-2013 via trade from Milwaukee after the once-dominant closer appeared broken. After a 2012 campaign when he pitched 69.1 innings and was worth just 0.2 WAR, a disastrous start in 2013 led to Axford having a 4.45 ERA and 4.77 FIP in 54.2 innings at the time of the trade. In 16 total innings with the Cardinals, including the postseason, he had a sub 1.70 ERA and a dramatically improved strikeout rate. What can we really gauge from just 16 innings? Probably not much, but it's fair to argue the change of scenery helped spur the improvement. For one, he learned he was likely tipping his pitches.

Perhaps Storen could pull off something similar this year. He's only 28. Batters have a .363 batting average on balls in play against him which is a career high and nearly 70 points above league average. For his career he's allowed home runs on 8.2% of fly balls but he's at another career high of 17.6% in 2016 - which dwarfs the league average (12.1%). Maybe he's just been unlucky.

Then again, maybe not. PITCHf/x shows that Storen's velocity has significantly decreased in 2016. Here is his average velocity (he relies most heavily on his slider and fastballs) going back the last three seasons:

Fastball

Sinker

Changeup

Slider

2014

93.4 mph

93.3 mph

86.7 mph

82.4 mph

2015

94.1 mph

93.7 mph

87.2 mph

82.6 mph

2016

92.5 mph

91.6 mph

84.6 mph

81.6 mph

Storen's also matched 2014 for the lowest strikeout rate of his career (20.5%) only he doesn't have the 90.6% strand rate this time to keep the run prevention in tow (he's at 71.2%, which is a bit below league average for relievers). And while it's worth noting again that he's only thrown 33.1 innings this year, not an appropriate sample, he's allowed 38.9% hard contact on batted balls, easily the worst of his career (his career average is 28.2%), and well above league average (30.6%) in 2016.

Above all, loss in velocity can mean several things, almost all of which are bad and Storen's short and disappointing stint in Toronto likely can't all be chalked up to bad luck. Hopefully Storen will be able to regain a bit of his form in a new setting, but it's hard to find an immediate reason why that setting should be St. Louis.