Guest Post: Aaron Nola Proving He Knows How To Pitch

This guest post was written by Ben Harris. Follow him on Twitter: @Ben27Harris

With 2016 came the Phillies first full campaign boasting their hopeful future trio of young rotation arms. Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vincent Velasquez had just 28 combined starts during their rookie years in 2015. But, to open this season, the trio of right-handers – whose average age rests just above 23 and a half – have dissected opponents in unique ways, providing Phillies’ faithful with bright rays of hope.

Aaron Nola began his 2016 campaign, and his first full professional season, with a statement outing against the Reds. The Phils’ number two starter rung up eight batters through seven strong innings, allowing four hits and one run. His next start in the home opener, he spun a career-high nine strikeouts. However, a few pitches that lacked execution and location resulted in four earned runs that handed Nola his first loss of the season.

His third start was arguably his worst in a Phillies uniform, as the division-rival Nationals dropped a seven spot on the young right-hander in five innings Saturday. His previous career high was six runs allowed in a single start.

Ahead Early and Often

Nola has looked significantly better than his 5.68 earned run average through three starts. A young arm with only 16 career starts under his belt, the LSU grad has pounded the strike zone at the fourth-highest rate in the majors. To put it simply, Nola has purchased some valuable real estate in the bottom of the strike zone, and, despite his consistency, batters aren’t effectively attacking him early in the count. As a result, they’re getting into holes and Nola is mowing them down – his 23 strikeouts are tied for third in the league.

Batters have recorded just two hits in 18 plate appearances when offering at Nola’s first pitch, no matter the result. Of the five that have managed to make contact with the first pitch, only one reached base.

Nola tosses first pitch strikes to an above average 64.5 percent of opposing hitters, jumping ahead and putting hitters in an early hole. Falling behind 0-1 presents problems as pitchers afford themselves the opportunity to throw anything in their arsenal. And, against a young pitcher with a small body of work, a lack of early-career trends can keep a hitter guessing. Nola’s supreme combination of movement and accuracy has baffled hitters behind in the count thus far and allowed him to pitch to his strengths. Among those strengths is his intangible pitching knowledge.

Intellectual Instinct

Out of college, Nola was often credited with an advanced understanding of ‘pitching’ as opposed to throwing. This looks to have carried over in a big way to his major league mindset. To boot, it may be that knowledge of the game, combined with his unusually small stature and lowered arm slot, that presents a uniquely different challenge unlike the majority of major league starters.

That know-how has bolstered his execution and he’s proven he can silence hitters that fall behind. Down in the count 0-1, opposing hitters hit just .171. Sixteen of those 44 plate appearances have resulted in strikeouts, compared to just one walk.

No pitcher threw more called strikes through Saturday than Nola with 74, a whopping 27 percent of his total pitches. Just behind Nola on that list sit three Cy Young Award winners: David Price, Clayton Kershaw, and Dallas Keuchel. In line with his standard operating procedure, the majority of those called strikes have come down away to right-handed bats.

Nola Zones

Of those 74 called strikes, 65 percent have come via Nola’s mix of two- and four-seam fastballs (35 percent and 30 percent respectively).

As hitters watch Nola work so consistently down and on the first base side of home plate, they learn the importance of protecting that zone with two strikes. The heat map of his strikeout pitches this season perfectly depicts the mind games Nola plays with hitters, or his aforementioned “pitchability” and inherent understanding of the position. Firmly supplanted down and away throughout the count, he extends the strike zone with two strikes, teasing the batter just out of the zone.

Nola Heat Map

Fifteen of his strikeouts have come via his sharp, sweeping curveball, and when hitters don’t get the deuce, they likely face his two-seamer that starts away and darts back toward the outside corner – both pitches benefit significantly from his lowered arm angle.

Nola is still tweaking his approach on the mound, but his stuff has seamlessly transferred to the major league level. In his short major league career – just shy of 100 innings – he averages 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings, roughly the career rates of Felix Hernandez (8.53) and Roger Clemens (8.55). While we can’t label his fastball ‘the Rocket’ or crown him ‘King’ just yet, he’s only one of Philadelphia’s young arms that is showing extreme promise early on in 2016.

Rotational Dominance

In a rotation yearning for the glory days of the Halladay, Hamels & Lee law firm, these young arms are the bedrock from which to grow upon. Especially for an organization priding its rebuild on pitching and defense, these young revelations are making great cases for their long-term stability.

Through Sunday, the rotation’s 3.27 ERA ranks seventh in the league, a full run below the National League average. Last season, their patchwork rotation sported a 5.23 ERA, good for 29th out of 30 clubs. This year, opponents have slashed .203/.252/.335 against the Phils’ starters; those numbers are good for second, first, and fifth-best among all starting rotations. They’ve struck out the most hitters of any rotation in baseball, with the second-best K/BB rate and third-most strikeouts per nine innings. Just for good measure, their WHIP is tied for a league-best 0.97. Nola, Velasquez and Eickhoff have surrendered just 8 total walks in 46 innings.

Entering Saturday Velasquez led the league in strikeouts with 25. By Monday, he ranked second, surpassed by David Price in his third start. But of the 14 major leaguers with 20-plus strikeouts, only two have achieved the feat in two starts: Velasquez and Noah Syndergaard.

For a rotation that lacks heat, they’ve found a golden arm in the aggressive right-hander from California. In 2015, only reliever Ken “Hundred Miles” Giles registered among the top 50 hardest-throwers in the league. During the Winter Meetings this past December, Matt Klentak swapped Giles for a haul of prospects that, despite including a former No. 1 overall pick, deemed Velasquez as the cornerstone of the deal.

In his complete game three-hit shutout debut at Citizens Bank Park, he threw more fastballs in the strike zone that were swung on and missed than any pitcher ever (beginning in 2007, the inaugural season of PITCHf/x data). He’s dialing it up, and hitters can’t catch up.

Eickhoff has eaten quality innings in the back-end of the rotation, showcasing a filthy breaking ball with serious 12-6 tilt. Shaking off a broken thumb suffered in spring training, Eickhoff has struck out a batter per inning in two starts thus far (12 innings). Nine of those twelve strikeouts have come via his electric curve.

If Phillies fans can get excited about Eickhoff’s 1.50 ERA, aided large in part due to his wipe out curveball, and a 16-strikeout outing from the young fire baller Velasquez, then mixing in Nola’s intangible pitching acumen should more than tickle their fancy.

It’s been seven full seasons since the Phils won the World Series in 2008, and just two pieces from that puzzle remain on the roster in Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard. Next year will signal a complete changing of the guards, a roster void of any 2008 ring-recipients. And amid this drastic turnover – and in their first full seasons on the majors nonetheless – these young arms are laying the groundwork for the future rotation.

Just 13 games into the year, it is certainly too soon to draw conclusions about a hoard of youngsters showcasing immense potential. For many teams, a rotation of five righties – like that of the Phillies – could be cause for concern. But for the Phils, and their three young starters in particular, their differing, yet complimentary styles of pitching are proving devastating for opponents.

Ben Harris is an aspiring baseball writer with a passion for the game’s sabermetric revolution. He is currently a senior journalism major at the University of Maryland, covering the school’s baseball team as head writer and graphic designer for Maryland Baseball Network.

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  1. Romus

    April 19, 2016 02:50 PM

    Good article on the three Phillie youngsters.
    Wish he would have touched some into the reasoning why Nola’s HR/FB of 15% sits at that level
    I do not expect him to be in single digits like a Harvey but this could be a cause for concern going forward if he cannot correct it..

  2. chris

    April 20, 2016 08:31 AM

    I am sorry to say but Nola is going to massively disappoint people due to the fact he has a lack of a put away pitch. He is a strike thrower who will live consistently at 90-91 MPH. And while he may throw a great game here and there, results of the last two starts will be the norm. If he has a year of under 4.00 ERA in his career, they will be very few.

    His ceiling was a number 3 pitcher and that is not good enough for a top 7 pick. He has already been surpassed by VV and JE and with the possibilities of Appel and Thompson and the number 1 pick in the waitings….. this looks to be a wasted pick.

    Now Michael Conforto…. 3 hole hitter for defending NL champs – now that would have been the smarter pick.

    • Ben Harris

      April 20, 2016 03:12 PM

      The fact that he has the knowledge to keep himself afloat despite not having wipeout stuff is what makes him fit so well into this rotation. And again, Nola is the youngest of the trio (not yet 22 1/2), he is far from a finished product. While the fastball needs work, like Romus pointed out, all but one of his extra base hits allowed this season have come on pitches in the middle-third of the strike zone. When he misses spots, he gets into trouble but with his command low in the zone with substantial movement (mostly from that arm slot), I believe will allow him to be successful when he’s teasing hitters away and stretching the zone.

      Now, it’s easy to say now a #3 starter isn’t “good enough” for a No. 7 pick and say that Vinny and Eickhoff have surpassed him. But it’s purely for that reason, along with the bolstered staffs in the minors (Appel, Thompson) that the Phils have the luxury of not overreacting to a top pick that doesn’t look (through just 16 starts, small sample size to begin with) like he’s going to reach ace potential.

      • chris

        April 21, 2016 08:25 AM

        Potential to be a number 3. He can easily be a 5/long man in a few years.

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