What’s Wrong With Aaron Nola?
The 2016 Phillies were supposed to be a terrible team and lately they’ve been living up (or down) to that expectation. What was not expected, however, was the complete deterioration of Aaron Nola‘s early season success. Entering play on June 11th, Nola had a 2.65 ERA, but now, three starts later, that ERA has risen all the way to 4.11.
|2016 Aaron Nola|
He’s gone from one of the best pitchers in the league to a guy who is allowing the opposition to hit like peak Barry Bonds. That’s… well, it’s not good. But is it worth worrying about? Is it just three starts or is it a sign that something is wrong with the 23-year-old pitcher who looked, just weeks ago, like he could be a top of the rotation pitcher for the Phillies for the foreseeable future?
Before we get started, I want to be clear up front that I don’t have a definite answer to that question. My inclination is always to not jump to conclusions based on brief struggles, so I can say that I’m personally not worried… yet. We’ve seen Aaron Nola not only put up great results this season, but look like a fantastic pitcher in doing so. He has superhuman command of three pitches — fastball, curveball, changeup — and the fastball and curveball in particular have played like legitimately plus pitches. That’s real. We’ve seen it and there’s no reason to expect it to dissipate. That said, something is obviously not working for Nola right now. So what’s going on?
The biggest thing hindering Nola right now appears to be that he is unable to command the zone in the way we’ve become accustomed. Nola’s “stuff” includes a low-90s fastball which isn’t dominant on its own merit, but plays up due to his elite command. As a result, though, batters have been doing a stellar job demonstrating exactly why Nola’s command is so critical to his success. Now that it’s off, the Contact% he’s allowed and his ability to work ahead in counts has plummeted:
In his last two starts, he’s allowed a 95.5% and 93.7% contact-rate! For the sake of comparison, Kyle Kendrick regularly put up season-long contact-rates in the 87-89% range during his Phillies tenure. When a pitcher is allowing this much contact, it’s all but inevitable that his results are going to be poor, particularly when the defense behind him is sub-par which is the case for Aaron Nola at the moment.
Not only is he allowing contact, but the quality of contact which he is allowing is extremely hard. Per FanGraphs, the only games in which he’s allowed hard-contact on 40+% of balls put into play are his last two starts. Even the best defense can only do so much when hitters are not only making contact, but making hard contact at that.
As a pitcher, Aaron Nola walks a tightrope and throughout his career he’s walked it with extraordinary success. His “stuff” isn’t frontline starting pitcher stuff, but he’s able to maximize the hell out of his repertoire through his uncanny ability to command the zone and repeat his mechanics. The hope is that there’s a slight adjustment — be it mechanical or mental — that can help him right what’s gone wrong.
One final note, which may be trivial or significant, is that I found that Nola’s struggles have been highly magnified with the bases empty. With runners on, batters posted a .734 OPS against Nola in his first 12 starts of the season and an .872 OPS during his last three — an increase to be sure, but a rather trivial one given the sample size we’re discussing. With the bases empty, however, the opponent’s OPS has jumped from .487 to 1.229! That’s massive and it leads me to believe that something is currently out of whack when he’s pitching out of the windup.
I studied video of Nola pitching out of both the stretch and windup from his “good” starts and his “bad” starts and could find no significant difference, but I am in no way a pitching mechanics expert. It would be my hope that there’s someone on the Phillies staff with a better eye than mine who can help Nola identify any problems which exist right now when he’s pitching out of the windup and help him get back to what had been making him so successful.
Am I worried about Nola? No. In evaluating players, it’s important to always keep the track record in mind and what Nola has shown in his brief major league career is that he belongs at this level and he has the ability to dominate here whether that’s as a #1 or #2 or #3 in a rotation. However, pitching is hard and pitching without dominant stuff, I’d imagine, is harder. Consistency in mechanics may be even more important to a control-first guy like Nola than it is for other pitchers and right now some part of his ability to locate pitches the way he’s accustomed to has abandoned him. If something is off in his delivery at the moment, his struggles could continue until he finds a way to right his mechanics.