Nola’s Other Pitch

Aaron Nola‘s curveball has received a lot of attention this year, and rightly so.  Nola has seemingly ridden an increased use of the pitch to raise his profile from solid starter to hearing whispers of “ace” just a month into the season. His curveball is undeniably excellent, possibly the best in the baseball, and now he’s throwing it more often without any decrease in effectiveness.

Year Thrown% Ball% Strike% Swing% Whiff%
2015 24% 28% 42% 49% 20%
2016 34% 27% 46% 48% 21%

It was a simple adjustment, and one that has been well documented. But while the curveball has gotten all the attention, it’s really only half the story behind Nola’s rise this year. The other half, the one where he has made the bigger adjustment, is the two seam fastball.

Nola has increased the use of his two seamer in almost identical fashion to his curve. The pitch accounted for a little less than a quarter of all his pitches in 2015. This year, he’s throwing it over a third of the time. And when batters have put the pitch in play, it’s being hit on the ground two out of three times. Ground balls can’t leave the ballpark, and they rarely turn into extra bases, so the benefit of throwing the pitch is obvious.

The caveat with the two seam fastball is that it isn’t much of a swing and miss offering. But Nola has been able to mitigate the lack of whiffs with an increase in called strikes. The increase hasn’t been slight, either. You can see the difference in the year to year outcomes of his two seamer against right handed batters.

Year Ball% Strike% Swing% Whiff%
2015 29% 28% 44% 4%
2016 30% 44% 28% 4%

Nola is hitting the strike zone at the same rate, but getting significantly fewer swings at the pitch. And it’s not dumb luck that hitters are suddenly laying off his fastball. Nola has made a distinct adjustment in his location of the pitch

In 2015, Nola was throwing his two seamer down and in to right handed hitters. This year, he’s living on the outside corner. Because Nola gets almost 11 inches of arm-side run on the two seamer, he has to throw the pitch toward the left hand batter’s box in order to catch the outer part of the plate. You can understand how this would make it difficult for a right handed hitter to commit to swinging at the pitch.  The result has been a lot of called strikes and perplexed looks from opposing hitters.

But what about left handed batters?

Year Ball% Strike% Swing% Whiff%
2015 50% 12% 38% <1%
2016 39% 27% 41% 7%

Nola is not only throwing more two seamers in the strike zone, he’s benefiting from more called and swinging strikes on the pitch. And like he’s done with right handed batters, Nola has changed his pitch location to lefties as well.

The difference isn’t as dramatic, but it’s still distinct. Nola is keeping to the outside edge, but he’s noticeably up in the zone from last year. Aside from being in the zone more often, there’s not an obvious answer as to why he’s getting the better results. My speculation is that by staying up in the zone with the two seamer, it’s hiding the curveball better, or maybe I should say the curveball is hiding the two seamer. If the initial trajectory of the two pitches is similar, it would make it difficult for the hitter to distinguish one pitch from the other, leading to late swings and bats left on shoulders. Whatever the reasoning, it’s given Nola a respectable fastball against opposite handed hitters.

By pitching to the corners of the plate and staying off the bottom edge of the zone, Nola has increased his rate of strikes on the two seamer by an incredible 76%, while still inducing grounders on two thirds of balls put in play. The improvement in the pitch, coming mostly on the back of the called strikes, has propelled Nola to the lead among all qualified starters in total strike rate, sitting three percentage points ahead of one Clayton Kershaw. So while Aaron Nola may be turning heads with the best curveball in baseball, don’t sleep on the two seam fastball, lest you get caught looking at strike three.

 

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12 comments

  1. JustBob

    May 12, 2016 08:59 AM

    Really nice article.

  2. Kurdt Kobeyn

    May 12, 2016 12:24 PM

    “wicked” is how I describe Nola’s CB and I’m of the opinion that it is one of the best (Top 3) in the league. i’m also a proponent of pitching ability and command so the lack of heat in the FB doesn’t knock Nola down in my book. Despite of the lack of velocity, Nola i think still has a plus FB because of the movement that his arm slot generates and he can command the FB anywhere he wants to.

    To be a legit top of the rotation SP that will come in and dominate, the development of the CH will be key which Nola has time and opportunity to do.

  3. glovesdroppa

    May 12, 2016 01:33 PM

    I was watching his game against the cards recently were he sat down Holliday looking with that 2-seamer. Between the curve and the 2-seamer there’s so much movement and if you’re able to paint the corners it’s just not fair.

  4. Romus

    May 12, 2016 02:56 PM

    Did Aaron Nola move to the other side of the rubber from last season?
    Seems I saw a video clip on here a few weeks ago detailing that he made the change.
    Or maybe it was another of the young pitchers.

    • Chris S

      May 12, 2016 03:49 PM

      Romus you are correct he is now on the first base side of the rubber. Last year he was near the middle of the rubber. There was an article on fangraphs about Nola’s curvevall. I don’t have the link because I’m on my phone, but it is worth a read.

      • Romus

        May 12, 2016 06:06 PM

        Thanks Chris……that may explain a few things on the change this year with him.

      • Tim

        May 13, 2016 10:21 AM

        I think that per Vin Scully/Clayton Kershaw, we should establish an official designation of “Public Enemy Number One” that can be used for whoever has the best curveball at a given time in baseball. The title can be passed along of course, but announcers can only use it for whoever owns the designation. Of course, MLB would probably get ADP or someone stupid to sponsor it, so maybe not such a good idea.

    • Tim Guenther

      May 12, 2016 04:17 PM

      The Fangraphs article linked in the first paragraph talks about his move to the first base side of the rubber. You can also see it in his horizontal release points at BrooksBaseball, which are almost a foot closer to the first base side as compared to last year.

  5. Gil

    May 12, 2016 06:22 PM

    Great article – thanks!

  6. Natedogg

    May 14, 2016 05:47 AM

    Excellent article and data presentation. Keep up the good work!

  7. Jim

    June 18, 2016 01:41 AM

    This is an above average article.

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