Don’t Overlook Aaron Nola
According to virtually every publicly available projection model, Aaron Nola is projected to be the best starting pitcher in the Phillies rotation. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects Nola to have the lowest WHIP (1.21) and lowest ERA (4.04) as well as the highest WARP (1.4). It should be noted that if the WARP figure looks a bit low, it’s because they only project Nola to throw 138 innings and the only conceivable way Nola’s season ends with just 138 innings pitched is if he suffers an injury. FanGraphs’ depth charts also projects Nola to have the highest WAR (2.4) on the staff and lowest BB/9 (2.1) in addition to a K/9 (7.7) and ERA (4.01) which is second only to Vince Velasquez (10.3 K/9, 3.70 ERA). A player catapulting himself to the top of a rotation depth chart (even a rotation depth chart of questionable quality like the Phillies’) after just half a season at the major league level should be garnering tons of attention in Spring Training and, yet, Nola seems almost to be an afterthought at this point.
On the surface, the lack of Nola hype is a reasonable side effect of the way the Phillies rotation is coming together this spring. There’s Vince Velasquez, the exciting new guy with a thrilling pitch repertoire which captures the imagination. There’s also Jerad Eickhoff coming off a surprising September breakout where the so-called “fourth prospect” in the Cole Hamels suddenly looked the part of a mid-rotation starter thanks to stellar breaking pitches and a cool demeanor on the mound. Even Adam Morgan is still hanging around trying to make the most of his fringy repertoire and giving Phillies fans an underdog candidate that few can resist pulling for.
Aaron Nola is none of those things. He doesn’t throw a fastball that lights up the radar gun quite like Velasquez’s heater does. He’s not an Eickhoff surprise or a Morgan underdog. He is exactly who the Phillies organization hoped he was when they drafted him in 2014 — a major league starting pitcher in a strong position to be a valuable member of the Phillies rotation for years to come — and meeting expectations can be an unfairly dull achievement.
It’s strange that a 22-year-old kid with just 13 major league starts to his name almost feels like the boring veteran on the staff, but here we are. The lack of drama and excitement surrounding Nola at the moment shouldn’t overshadow the fact, however, that he is not a boring finished product. He is the same pitcher that electrified Citizens Bank Park in his debut last July. He still boasts exceptional command, a bat-missing curveball, and a developing changeup.
There is relatively little doubt that he is a middle-of-the-rotation guy going forward which means he suffers from the unwarranted negative connotations of the phrase “high floor”. Yes, Nola has a “high floor”, but it’s important to note that “high floor” is not synonymous with “no upside.”
Nola has virtually the same amount of major league experience as Velasquez and Eickhoff, which is to say very little. We already know that he possesses the talent and ability to stick in a major league rotation, but if the changeup that he’s been working on takes another step forward it is far from inconceivable that he becomes a legitimate #2 starting pitcher. But even if he never achieves that ceiling, being a solid rotation mainstay carries extreme value to an organization.
Like Velasquez and Eickhoff, it’s much too early to know what Nola’s final product will look like, as if any pitcher is ever actually a final product. All we know is that, of the three, Nola is the safest bet going forward. Safety may be relatively boring, but it’s a positive characteristic which ought not be overlooked. Enjoy Nola as much in 2016 as you did when he debuted in 2015.