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
Through 6/10 12 78 62 29 23 15 85 2.65 .580
Since 6/10 3 9.2 22 20 17 7 10 15.83 1.191

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:

Nola Contact Zone rates 2016

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.

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  1. Richard

    June 24, 2016 01:39 PM

    It’s been an alarming sequence, but I’m not overly concerned.

    Did you happen to see the recent reports that apparently, yes, there is some mechanical issue, and that Ruiz will be catching him now, too? (Sorry I don’t have links to hand, or I’d share them…)

  2. Romus

    June 24, 2016 02:17 PM

    Aaron Nola will have to ensure he has top command of all his pitches and will have little margin for error when his velo, as a RHP, tops at 92. That leaves no wiggle room. But if his secondary pitches are plus he will be successful. Though a bit risky….he should look into a split-finger as a two-strike pitch.

  3. SeattlePhan

    June 24, 2016 04:28 PM

    That’s right about the time I added him to my fantasy team. No other explanation needed.

    • Bubba0101

      June 25, 2016 08:50 AM

      Please drop him asap. It would be a huge favor bc I’ve had him all year and he was great in my league. 😉

  4. Frank S.

    June 25, 2016 12:04 PM

    What’s wrong with Aaron Nola? Two simple words “Bob McClure.”

    • BobSmith77

      June 27, 2016 09:05 AM

      This coaching staff as a whole especially Morandini who is in charge of their base running and base stealing.

      I have yet to hear a single Phils’ pitcher credit McClure publicly with helping them to make a notable adjustment.

      You saw a few minor changes last year and my sense is that you will be wholesale change in the coaching staff this offseason.

      • Romus

        June 27, 2016 09:38 AM

        Hard to judge on Morandini.
        Cesar (10 years) and Odubel (8 years) have been playing professional baseball for awhile now and have some fundamental issues of concentration on the bases.
        Morandini can remind them of the game situation when they are at first base, and what to do when the next situation occurs….but they still have to execute.
        Can you blame Morandini when Odubel gets soundly picked off first base….by a right handed pitcher?
        McClure….not sure what to make….he had a lively discussion during the game yesterday with the bullpen coach…..that was odd.

  5. Rot

    June 27, 2016 10:51 AM

    Of course the Phillies have looked into this, but Nola has got to be tipping his pitches. The extreme fall in results w/o any major drop in physical measurables is very hard to explain otherwise.

  6. Rot

    June 27, 2016 10:53 AM

    Of course the Phillies have looked into this, but Nola has got to be tipping his pitches. The extreme fall in results w/o any major drop in physical measurables is very hard to explain otherwise.

    He’s probably tipping most out of the wind up v. the stretch which explains the OPS jump with bases empty?.?.?…

  7. Kennedy

    June 27, 2016 01:09 PM

    Just dug around briefly two things stand out to me about Nola’s recent numbers:

    1. BABIP. His babip over the last year (29 games) is .315, but over the last 3 it’s .590 and over the last 6 it’s .494 (bbref). Is that just a string of horrible luck? Is it bad fielding? Maybe, but while Morgan’s babip has also shot up recently Eickhoff and Hellickson are posting normal numbers.

    Going deeper, the last few starts Nola is getting more groundballs at the expense of fly balls (LD’s are actually holding steady). I don’t know if this is intentional or not, some pitchers make a living off weak contact and strong infield play, but I would like some analysis of change in pitch placement over the last couple months.

    2. Related, but control control control. Brooks Baseball shows that comparing March – May to June, Nola is throwing more balls with every one of his pitches, especially in an 0-0 count.

    But, velo and movement do seem steady, which is great news.

  8. Steve Kellerman

    July 02, 2016 06:50 PM

    When are they going to realize that it IS Nola’s mechanics!

    1) He strides too long… landing on his heel (ask Randy Johnson), 2) His upper body is out front, that leads to 3) He leads with his elbow (arm death for ANY pitcher), 4) That flattens out his pitches (and they CRUSH THEM). And that’s just the beginning… if he continues to lead with his elbow (ala Strasburg) Best case – he WILL have Tommy John surgery… Worst case – he’ll be out of baseball within 3 to 5 years!

    Common McClure (and others) it really is that simple!!!

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