April breakouts are a tricky thing; oftentimes, they'll evaporate as the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months. This seems to apply to Trevor Story, as well as countless others like him. In some cases, though, true hegemony will stick around. Among young players in particular, a great start out of the gate can foreshadow a breakout. Phillies fans — you know, the ones whose team could finish last in the NL East for the third straight year — hope that's the case for Aaron Nola, the 22-year-old sophomore.
Through his first four games, Nola has faced 103 batters; 30 of them have gone down on strikes, and five have worked a free pass. Only nine other qualifiers have a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio; just six have a higher strikeout minus walk rate. Nola's 4.50 ERA doesn't show it, but he's excelled in the early going, and while production this extreme probably won't last, Nola's talent should cushion his regression.
How has Nola gotten here? He has a swinging-strike rate of 12.1 percent in his four starts, according to Baseball-Reference's data. With a major-league average whiff rate of 11.0 percent thus far, that doesn't stand out like it used to. He's instead succeeded by getting a lot of strikes, and more importantly, a lot of called strikes. Among qualified pitchers, his 70.5 percent strike rate tops the majors:
So does his 28.4 percent looking strike rate — and this one leads by a ton:
The high strike rate clearly helps Nola's cause, and we'll see how far it could take him in a moment, but let's center our attention on the called strikes. This ability didn't appear from nothing: In his year-plus as a prospect — the Phillies drafted him in 2014, and he's stayed at the major-league level since his July 2015 call-up — Nola consistently caught hitters looking. Per B-R's minor-league data, he compiled 100.2 innings over 18 Double-A starts, in which 19.1 percent of his pitches went for called strikes. Across 32.2 innings and six starts at the Triple-A level, he built upon that success, ramping his looking-strike rate up to 23.6 percent. And when he came to the show, he didn't lose too much ground, with a 21.2 percent called strike clip over 77.2 frames.
Of course, Nola accomplished all of that in much larger samples. As discussed above, the 2016 season is still quite young. In 2015, the highest called strike rate in baseball was Bartolo Colon's 21.3 percent; this means Nola will almost certainly fall off from this pace. With that said, he's pitched differently this year than in the past, and that could elevate his game even further.
To get a called strike, you generally have to throw the ball in the strike zone. Framing is obviously the exception to this, but since Cameron Rupp — he of the lifetime -7.9 Framing Runs in less than a full season's innings — has caught all of Nola's innings this year, the pitcher likely hasn't gotten much help in that regard. Nola took the hill for the Phillies 13 times last season, posting a zone rate of 46.7 percent. So far this year, he's hit the zone on 53.9 percent of his pitches; in addition to accounting for the aforementioned high strike rate, that ensures a healthy amount of called strikes, no matter what the opposition does.
Of course, it also helps that hitters have rarely offered at Nola's pitches in the strike zone. From 2015 to 2016, he's lowered his Z-Swing rate from 57.0 to 49.8 percent, the latter of which leads the majors. To fool hitters like that, Nola has targeted the most pitcher-friendly area of the zone: the edges. Last season, according to Bill Petti's calculations, Nola threw 27.3 percent of his pitches on the edges of the plate, which put him at 66th among 259 pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches. This year, he's improved on that, with a 28.8 percent edge rate that ranks 23rd out of a 110-pitchers sample.
We can take a deeper look at where Nola has netted these calls. Via Baseball Savant, here are his looking strikes versus righties...
...as well as lefties:
Regardless of the hitter's handedness, Nola has a similar strategy: breaking balls down the middle, and hard stuff to the right. This approach seems to have been more effective against right-handed batters — who have taken a called strike for 33.5 percent of their pitches — as it hits them with fastballs and sinkers away, where they're more likely to avoid chasing. It's worked fairly well against left-handed batters too: They have a looking strike rate of 20.9 percent, primarily because of curveballs on the outside. No matter who steps in against him, Nola appears to have a weapon to ring them up. Pounding the zone and painting the corners, when put together, are a dangerous combination.
So just how great can Nola be? After his second game against the Padres, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin raved about his abilities:
"His mechanics are conducive to throwing strikes," Mackanin said, seemingly expecting excellence from a starter still so young. "He's just a strike thrower. I think sometimes, he reminds me of Cliff Lee. Every once in a while, you'd like him to get a little more wild—effectively wild. He pounds the strike zone. There's a lot of called strikes when Nola pitches and it's to his credit because he paints the corners."
Comparing a young player to an all-time great can sometimes lead to trouble — Nola isn't the only Philadelphia player for whom this applies — but in this case, the analogy might check out. From 2008 to 2013, the period in which Lee reigned supreme, he twirled a 69.9 percent strike rate, along with a 20.2 percent called strike rate. 58.4 percent of his pitches fell in the zone, and 62.0 percent of those pitches encountered a swing. This resembles the recipe by which Nola has succeeded in 2016: Attack hitters relentlessly, and goad them into patience.
What Nola has accomplished to this point may not continue. Perhaps his 2015 production represents his ceiling, and this is nothing more than a four-start blip. Or maybe Nola has broken out, following in the footsteps of another Philly legend. If he can retain these called strikes, he'll see his ERA fall swiftly, giving his profile a boost. Although some will argue that whiffs are the sexiest pitch outcome, resilient Philadelphia fans will certainly be fine with looks.
. . .