2015 Phillies Report Card – Aaron Nola

For Aaron Nola, after being the college pitcher of the year in 2014, and the #7 overall pick in that summer’s draft,  a ticket to the majors was printed on opening day of 2015. The date of arrival was the only thing left blank. Nola spent a couple months in AA and AAA before he got to write in “July 21”, and honestly, it’s pretty stunning how lax the TSA is with 2014 First Round draft picks. One of those guys could be an ISIS in disguise. (My money’s on Michael Conforto, mostly because he’s on The Mets, and I dislike them so much that I’d prefer to be marooned on top of a mountain with my religious sect than see them win a World Series. Go Royals, Boo Mets, as they say).

Aaron Nola put up a fairly strong pro debut in 2014, in which he pitched like he belonged in A+ and AA just weeks after being drafted out of LSU. He was tagged by most everyone as the Phils #2 prospect, behind only J.P. Crawford, and ahead of, almost exclusively, third baseman Maikel Franco. He was held out of big league camp, though he was brought over as an extra arm for three innings against The Yankees Grapefruit League team on March 27. Some around the game griped, but I didn’t think a lot about the move to keep him out of MLB spring training. And if it bothered Nola, he didn’t show it on the field, as he started hot at AA Reading, putting up a 1.88 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 12 starts before going to Lehigh Valley for six more at 3.58/3.16. By mid-July, it was pretty clear that the developmental path of the young righthander had reached the big leagues, and the man they call “Dry Land”, (they do, trust me. Mike Baumann told me so), was called up to make his debut against Tampa Bay on July 21.


Photo credit – Drew Hallowell from Getty

That debut was impressive – he allowed just one run on five hits, a walk and 6 Ks, plus he collected his first big league hit. It really did energize the fandom for a minute, and Cole Hamels’ no-hitter to cap the subsequent weekend in Chicago would prove the peak of what was truly the most exciting span of Phillies pitching this season. Here’s a link to video of the PA where Nola collected his first K.

In all, Nola started 13 games for the 2015 Phils, posting a 3.59 ERA and a nearly identical xFIP, with a 4.04 FIP. He struck out 68 and walked just 19 in 77.2 IP, for a strong K%-BB% of 15.4%. One troubling item, and something that’s been on the radar with Nola from day one, is his home run rate. He gave up 11 bombs in his 13 starts, at a rate of 1.27/9 and a 15.1 HR/FB rate. That plays into the notion from many evaluators that Nola’s Achilles Heel may be that his stature and his 3/4 delivery can leave his pitches flat, and make him homer prone. Obviously it’s a small sample in a big league debut season, so no one’s closing the book on Nola as a front-line starter, but the tendency should be watched by evaluators and addressed by the coaching staff if it’s reasonable to do so without harming his game otherwise.

I’m quite hopeful that Nola’s development this year will carry over into next. His combination of fastball command and good secondary pitches that seem to be evolving has me hoping there truly is a #2 starter in Aaron Nola. His floor should keep him working every fifth day without fear of demotion for a long time.

Grade: A-, mostly dinged because of that homer rate.

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  1. Romus

    October 28, 2015 08:34 AM

    Have to agree with the detailed analysis. Some of the downward sloping for him may have been to the fact he worked longer then ever in the past, though he did say in September he felt fine physically. But your assessment in his #2 slotting in the rotation, and final grading seems to be spot on.
    Also, I have not looked into his pitch frequency to LHBs, or whether or not he utilized his two-seamer or CU more with them then RHBs. Though it was only a SSS for 2015, down the road, I am sure, with more experience, he will improve on his pitching to LHBs….. and lower the OPS of .834.

    • Romus

      October 28, 2015 08:43 AM

      Looking at his usage vs LHB…he did noticeably use his 2-seamer and CU more going forward into September, especially the sinker/2-seamer.
      7/15 4S- 37.0 2S- 20.2 CB- 18.0 CU-24.7
      8/15 43.5 26.4 15.0 15.0
      9/15 31.9 33.3 13.8 21.0

    • bubba0101

      October 28, 2015 09:12 AM


      Nola has an unquantifiable quality (grit as it were). Guys like that will stick around and improve solely based on tenacity and determination. That homerun rate could be, in part, due to the dimensions of the home park. Ive seen weak fly balls scrape over the wall. And Ive also seen a guy like Hamels who seemed to give up 2 solo shots per game, have a ton of success as well. Nola is not Hamels, but we dont expect him to be either.

      • Moving Goal Post

        October 28, 2015 05:26 PM

        Yeah, was expecting a 4th or 5th starter type based on the initial assessments. All of a sudden people want Nola to be an Ace or he’s a failure – just crazy talk.

      • Steve

        October 29, 2015 06:59 AM

        He has been projected as a 2/3 guy in the rotation pretty consistantly. The amazing thing about him is how polished he is for a kid who has only played 1 year of pro ball. He was drafted because he was thought to be almost MLB ready, and obviously that was true. It will be interesting to see how teams adjust to him and vice versa in 2016.

  2. Gil

    October 28, 2015 10:29 AM

    Nola’s a young pitcher whose mistake pitches weren’t missed. That happens. Heck, it happens to all pitchers. His first season showed tons of promise. Maybe he’ll give up a lot of homers, maybe he’ll be a 2, 3, or 4 slotted starter in future. Future performance will tell that story, and I’m sure looking forward to seeing his progression.

    Good analysis (despite the tasteless ISIS reference. They ain’t no joke!). Nola looks to be the real deal – he sure knows how to pitch effectively with two quality major league pitches. He’s got that great curve just like Cole had (and has) that great change up, and like Hamels’s and any other top starter, Nola’s going to need to continue to develop and mix in a third consistently above average pitch (cu) and ultimately a fourth at least average pitch (maybe a running fastball that comes in on righties and moves away from lefties) if he is to have lasting success (fewer homers, getting lefties to swing and miss) and develop into a top tier starter.

    My point is that we need to be patient and should temper our expectations through acknowledging the difference between a talented young pitcher (not a can’t miss superstar like Kershaw) and a front line starter. I’m not convinced that Nola will develop into more than a solid number three starter, yet think he has the smarts, tools and competitiveness to do it and develop into a borderline elite pitcher.

    Speaking of intelligence and drive – Nola and Eickoff appeared to have been building a friendship in the 2015 season’s last five weeks, and based on Eickoff’s public comments about wanting to develop his change up in the offseason, my guess is that they both have a good sense of their offseason developmental priorities. Very promising. Should be exciting to see next year!

  3. Major Malfunction

    October 28, 2015 11:50 AM

    I recall Nola stating that MLB batters aren’t as easily fooled and he’s going to work on a new pitch over the winter to increase his arsenal. I wish I could link to the article, but I’m unable to find it.

    Assuming my memory is correct, that’s pretty impressive logic for a 22 year old rookie pitcher. And I would also think he’ll be ready and even more praiseworthy come 2016.

    • Romus

      October 28, 2015 03:09 PM

      I wonder what type of pitch he will try to add? Slider? According to Brooks he now throws four.
      “Aaron Nola has thrown 1,117 pitches that have been tracked by the PITCHf/x system in 2015, all of them occuring in the MLB Regular Season. In 2015, he has relied primarily on his Fourseam Fastball (91mph), Curve (77mph) and Sinker (91mph), also mixing in a Change (82mph).”

      • Romus

        October 28, 2015 03:10 PM

        Adding a cutter, which could be another variation of his sinker/2-seamer.

      • Timber

        October 28, 2015 03:45 PM

        His curveball…excellent against righties and lefties. His changeup…not so excellent against righties or lefties. I would be interested to see him add a cutter to the mix. Go heavy two seamer against righties and heavy cutter against lefties. Toss in that curveball that he can both spot for strikes and get whiffs on against both, and he’d be golden.

      • Timber

        October 28, 2015 03:58 PM

        That was actually the Roy Halladay arsenal before he joined the Phillies: cutter, two seamer, curveball. He also had a changeup that he rarely used because it was not a good pitch. When he joined the Phillies in 2010, he scrapped the changeup and started throwing a splitter that got a ton of whiffs and his strikeout rates spiked.

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