Phillies’ Aaron Nola is One of the Best Starting Pitchers in Baseball

As his fourth consecutive Opening Day start approaches, Aaron Nola is among the best starting pitchers in baseball, yet fans don’t realize it.

Assuming all goes according to plan, Aaron Nola is set to start his fourth consecutive Opening Day for the Philadelphia Phillies. Nola will do so in front of 8,800 fans and will become only the fourth pitcher in Phillies’ history to do so. Steve Carlton was the last to do so, as well as Robin Roberts and Pete Alexander.

And yet, inexplicably, a large portion of Phillies fans do not believe in the 27-year old Louisianan.

Whether or not you subscribe to the lunacy that is Philadelphia sports radio, we are getting to the bottom of this and showing that Nola is a bona fide ace.

A Look at Aaron Nola’s Stats

A career 3.47 ERA, Nola truly established himself as a mainstay in Philadelphia in 2017. Coming off an elbow injury that ended his 2016 campaign early, Nola started the 2017 season in rough shape. He started that season pitching for a 4.50 ERA through three starts in April. After returning from a back injury that sidelined him for a month, however, Nola took off. From June through the end of the 2017 season, Nola threw for a 3.18 ERA while ringing out 155 batters over 136 innings.

What’s that? It was just one season? Allow me to direct your attention to 2018. Nola started in 33 games during the 2018 season, pitching for a 2.37 ERA with 224 strikeouts in a career-high 212.1 IP. He was voted an All-Star and ended third in the NL Cy Young Award race behind Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

I will give you that Nola regressed a bit in 2019. And yet he still showed ace qualities even in a year of regression. An ace not only needs to be a great pitcher, but a consistent one too. Nola started in 34 games in 2019, the most across all Major League Baseball. And though he allowed more runners on base with a 1.265 WHIP, he also had a SO/9 over 10 for the first time in his career (10.2).

And then came 2020. The Phillies’ 2020 bullpen demonstrated just what a shortened season’s sample size can hurt a pitcher’s numbers. Trevor Bauer, meanwhile, demonstrated how good a shortened season can help a pitcher’s numbers. Nola remained consistent throughout. His 3.28 ERA put him smack-dab in the middle of his previous two seasons while his SO/9 rose again to 12.1.

Aaron Nola’s Repertoire

Nola throws four main pitches: a four-seam fastball, sinker, curveball, and a changeup. While his velocity is nowhere near league-leading (41st percentile), Nola did sit in thet 91st percentile in strikeouts in 2020. Nola does so with his deceptive delivery and well-varied pitch selection. Over the 2020 season, Nola did not show a favorite pitch, throwing his changeup 27.4% of the time, his curveball 26.7%, his four-seamer 25.3%, and his sinker 20.7% of the time.

But he doesn’t simply switch between pitches. Nola’s release point is incredibly consistent.

Aaron Nola's Release Point by Pitch-Type

If you are a batter facing Aaron Nola, it will be incredibly difficult to read which pitch is coming your way according to the release point. Not only so, but his four main pitches each possess a differing amount of horizontal and vertical movement. You could try to determine what pitch he is going to throw by the count, but he throws just about all of them regardless. Essentially, Nola is as close to an unpredictable at bat as hitters are going to get!

The Big Picture

Since assuming the role of number one pitcher in 2018, Nola has thrown for a 138 ERA+ and a 3.46 FIP in Philadelphia. Over that stretch, Nola has struck out 549 batters, sixth most in all of Major League Baseball. For added perspective, Cliff Lee struck out 667 batters from 2011 to 2013 (three full seasons).

Heading into the 2021 season, Nola is the ninth-best starting pitcher in the league per MLB Network. He is joined in the top-ten by perennial stars like Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw as well as some newer guys to the party like Trevor Bauer, Shane Bieber, and Dinelson Lamet.

The Best Has Yet to Come

Nola is entering his age-28 season this year. He is just entering the prime years of his career and fans can certainly expect him to continue to outperform expectations. Cole Hamels’ best year wasn’t until age 30. Cliff Lee? 29. Roy Halladay? 33.

Aaron Nola has been a solid foundation for the Phillies’ pitching staff to build upon the last few years. Now, it’s time for Phillies fans to realize that as well and treat Nola as the ace he truly is.

Photo Credit: John Jones/Icon Sportswire

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