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.

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  1. Tornado

    March 24, 2016 05:04 PM

    Oh ard

  2. JustBob

    March 24, 2016 05:40 PM

    Agreed he doesn’t generate much interest from the general fan base. To be fair though, his projections are pretty run of the mill which translates into a mid-to-back rotation starter (~4 ERA, 1-2 WAR).

    Still is one of the few really compelling reasons to watch this team on TV/in person right now including to see how his changeup develops and he does without firm pitch count restrictions.

  3. allentown1

    March 24, 2016 06:00 PM

    I think the Phillies have wisely decided not to put any added pressure on the quite young Nola. He has enough already as a recent first round draft pick. He is going to be a #3 starter for the Phillies long term and has a bright future. Nothing at all to be gained by focusing attention upon him. Phillies also wisely make the veteran Hellickson the nominal #1 in the rotation. Velasquez also doesn’t need the pressure of being the nominal #1.

    • Von

      March 24, 2016 06:34 PM

      Yeah, he’s the proverbial tallest midget in the group. He was drafted & projected to be a #2/#3 & that’s what he’s pitched like. Philly fans need to calm down about Nola.

      • Von

        March 25, 2016 07:15 PM

        I get more downvotes than “oh ard”????? c’mon

  4. JustBob

    March 24, 2016 11:12 PM

    I am interested to see if his velocity is going to pick back up a bit. It was only routinely 89-90 late last year and it was not better this spring around ~90 MPH.

    For a RHP who does not have a difficult release point to pick up for hitters, it gives him little margin of error especially since it is his mostly frequently used pitch.

    • Bamburger

      March 24, 2016 11:15 PM

      He’s got pretty good wiggle on all his pitches plus very good command of the corners.

    • Romus

      March 25, 2016 07:48 AM

      Fangraphs has his 4S at 90.7 for 2015.
      And Brooks:

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