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Aaron Nola’s effectiveness appears to be back

Nola’s injury-shortened 2016 created some cause for concern, but he has returned looking better than ever.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola came into the 2017 season as a question mark. After finishing 2016 on a poor note, and having to be shut down with an elbow injury, many wondered if Nola would be the same pitcher that he was before he faded down the stretch.

Nola’s first 12 starts in 2016 were fantastic. He pitched 78 innings to the tune of a 2.65 ERA and an 85:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He found himself among the league leaders in multiple categories, and Phillies fans were extremely pleased with what they saw from their team’s 2014 first-round pick.

Something changed, though, and quickly. Nola only lasted a total of 33 innings pitched over his last eight starts of 2016, allowing 36 earned runs (39 total) for an ugly 9.82 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was not nearly as strong as in the early part of the year, sitting at 36:14, and Nola’s season ERA rose from the 2.65 mark to a not-so-nice 4.78.

What changed? Following a July 28 start against the Braves, Nola went on the disabled list with a low-grade sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament, the same tendon that leads to Tommy John surgery when torn, and a flexor sprain in his forearm. Nola opted not to undergo surgery, as his UCL was still intact. He instead received platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatment last September.

That is what made Nola’s performance an area of concern as the 2017 season neared. The Phillies, in the rebuilding process, wanted to see some improvement from him to know exactly what type of pitcher he may ultimately become. And, really, all he needed to do was show flashes of his “original self.”

Through two starts, Nola seems to be back on track. Only throwing 89 pitches in the first and 90 in the second, Nola has thrown 11 innings, allowing four runs for a 3.27 ERA. More promising, though, is that he’s struck out more than a batter per inning, and his 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is in line with his excellent early-2016 numbers. In fact, with a minimum 10 innings, Nola’s K%-BB% already ranks 11th in MLB.

As we’ve seen, the results are there. But, and more importantly, so is the velocity and movement.

Aaron Nola pitch velocity, by month

Date Avg. Fastball Velo Avg. Sinker Velo Avg. Changeup Velo Avg. Curve Velo
Date Avg. Fastball Velo Avg. Sinker Velo Avg. Changeup Velo Avg. Curve Velo
April 2016 91.11 91.20 82.13 77.39
May 2016 91.87 90.66 82.79 77.00
June 2016 91.38 90.93 81.91 76.96
July 2016 90.24 89.77 81.65 76.18
April 2017 92.84 92.02 83.31 77.29
Data from BrooksBaseball.Net

Nola’s fastball and sinker velocity took a dip from June to July last year, yet another signal that something wasn’t right. Nola has never been a hard thrower, making it even more important that he’s able to maintain the velocity that he does possess. And, since he lost a solid mph on his fastball, his ability to get hitters out decreased significantly.

In 2017, though, Nola’s velocities across the board are up, even from his healthy numbers at the beginning of last year. (BrooksBaseball also has not changed the way they calculate their fastball velocities, so while changes in velocity as recorded on sites like FanGraphs might be illusory, this data reflects a real change.) That is an extremely encouraging sign going forward, and it could make Nola a much better pitcher, possibly representing improvement in addition to recovery from his injury. In yesterday’s start in Washington, Nola even hit 95mph on the radar gun, the fastest fastball of his entire career. Velocity isn’t everything, but it’s a lot, and Nola throwing the ball harder is as encouraging of a sign for his performance as there ever will be.

Aaron Nola swinging strikes, per month

Date Swinging Strikes Per Start Per Inning
Date Swinging Strikes Per Start Per Inning
April 2016 49 9.80 1.48
May 2016 59 9.83 1.51
June 2016 28 5.60 1.47
July 2016 36 9.00 1.80
April 2017 25 12.50 2.27
Data from Baseball-Reference.com

In his first two starts of 2017, Nola has already generated 25 swinging strikes against a Nationals’ lineup filled with outstanding hitters such as Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton. As seen in the chart, he’s averaging the most swings-and-misses per inning for his career, though that may have not stabilized yet considering it has been only two starts.

It is still good to see, though, especially considering he only got 14 swings-and-misses in a single start once last season, on May 20. He did that just yesterday.

Swings-and-misses are a good indicator of a pitcher’s movement, velocity, sequencing, and location, all factors that directly correlate to hitters whiffing. (Some, of course, rely on a combination of those four; pitching is complicated!) Nola relies more on his craftiness than his ability to blow by hitters, as seen in his modest velocity numbers. But, yesterday, against Washington, Nola’s movement also seemed to be as good as ever.

Here’s some video of his changeup against Harper (twice), Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Wilmer Difo:

And, now, some video of his curveball. A 2-1 pitch to Zimmerman, resulting in an ugly swing-and-miss:

And a 1-1 curve to Eaton, as the first batter of the game:

In each of those videos, Nola is working with excellent movement, another sign that he has not changed, even after the injury.

It might be a bit early to say for sure, but Aaron Nola seems to be back on his upward trajectory, and that is great news for the Phillies and baseball fans everywhere.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.