The Phillies drafted Aaron Nola with the highest of expectations. Having been selected already in 2011 by the Blue Jays but spurning their offer, Nola enrolled at LSU and signed with the Phillies three years later, after being selected as the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Despite a rocky 2016, everyone knew Nola’s talent was immense. The challenge for him last season, however, was his sprained UCL. My colleague Devan Fink did a fantastic job laying out the signs that Nola was unhealthy in his April piece, but even more credit should be given to Devan for identifying the positive signs in Nola’s first two starts. Since Devan’s post, Nola has started another 16 games and has maintained a strong pace as the de facto “ace” of the Phillies staff.
The injury bug hit earlier this season, when he he again landed on the DL and missed a month with a lower back sprain. Overall, when on the field, Nola has been excellent.
Over the course of 18 starts and 112 ⅓ innings, Noa has struck out 117 batters and walked only 33. He has allowed only 10 home runs (averaging about one every-other-start) and he’s gone at least six innings in 14 of the 18 games. Over his last nine starts, Nola has gone at least six strong, and not allowed more than two runs in any of those games.
Overall, Nola has been worth three wins (per FanGraphs) and is projected for just about another 1.5 by the time the season ends. His strikeout percentage is above where it was last season, thanks in part to increased speed on all his pitches. His four seam fastball is up from 91.3 MPH last year to 92.8, and his sinker and curveball have also added velocity. The seasonal averages are misleading, however, as Nola’s 2017 velocities are pretty close to his April 2016 velocities, the one part of the year that he was healthy. The increase in average is not a sign of greater abilities for Nola, but of better health.
It’s not just his velocity, either. When looking at his 2017 pitch selection, Nola’s numbers again look more like they did in April of 2016 than the rest of last season.
While he practically ditched his four seamer in favor of his sinker and curveball from May onward last year, this season his pitch selection is far more evenly distributed.
Not surprisingly, a more balanced pitch repertoire combined with an increase in velocity has led to positive results so far this season. To date in 2017, Nola is inducing whiffs on nearly 10 percent of his four seamers, 16 percent of his change ups and nearly 17 percent from his curveballs. The numbers are a far cry from last season, when only his sweeping curveball continued to generate swings-and-misses as the season progressed. This season, Nola has the 15th-best strikeout rate in the majors, an ERA in the top ten, and the 14th-best RA9-WAR in the Majors.
Devan ended his piece with the phrase “It might be a bit early to say for sure, but Aaron Nola seems to be back on his upward trajectory.” Despite a brief bump in the road due to back problems in late April, Aaron Nola is showing us exactly who he is: a cornerstone in a Phillies rotation that badly needs a foundation.