2016 Phillies Report Card: Aaron Nola
When a cornerstone of the future of an organization struggles, for what seems like no good reason, it can be a hard on the fans, but it has to be brutal on the player. And so it was with Aaron Nola in the summer of 2016. It got so bad that Nola was shelved for a short period to “clear his head” and allow a bit of arm fatigue to pass.
Upon his return from this break, things went really well for one start – a six inning, two-hit shutout performance against Miami. Then the wheels came off again in Pittsburgh, and again in Atlanta, where he felt pain in his throwing elbow, and his season was over. And through all of this, all of us, rightly or not, freaked the heck out.
Aaron Nola started his first full season as a Phillie with a couple very solid months. In 11 starts in April and May, Nola was 4-4 with a 2.88 ERA that basically matched his FIP and xFIP, and opponents hit about .250 on balls in play against him. From there and through his shut down in early July, he continued to strike batters out, and had a bit of trouble controlling his walks, but maintained a decent rate. And batters hit over .500 against him on balls in play. (Yes, that’s right, over .500). That’s astoundingly bad, especially given that he maintained a high ground ball rate of 56.1% over that six-game stretch. Add to that his three game stint after his break and before he broke, and his traditional stats for the year, a 6-9 record and a 4.78 ERA, are not terribly nice. He did strike out 121 and walked just 29 in 111 IP, for a sterling K-BB% of 19.0%. For reference, that’s the same Roy Halladay put up in his dominant 2010 season with the Phils.
Now that doesn’t mean Nola was as good as Doc, but it does mean he was doing a good job of missing bats without giving up the control and command needed to limit free passes. Additionally, his ground ball rate was over 55%, up almost 8% from 2015, and he limited hard contact and line drives to near identical levels as the prior year. His home run rate and home run/FB rates were also down.
Simply put, he was as good or better than he was in 2015, even though he was at times getting himself into more trouble than a teenager with a temper. So why did his ERA balloon?
Dude got BABIPed. Sure, there’s all kinds of ways to slice it, and you could spend a half a day on Brooks looking for signs of tipping his pitches, lowering arm angles, but a .334 BABIP for a 20-start year, after it was ~.250 in the first two months? That’s just the world giving you the bird. It’s a shit sandwich. It’s “Otherwise Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” I may be over-dramatizing a bit. Perhaps.
However you choose to describe it, there’s little explanation for such high rates of success by batters when a pitcher does such a good job of keeping the ball on the ground. And if that run of bad luck weren’t enough, Nola wound up with an injured throwing elbow to end his season before the calendar turned to August. Rest was prescribed, and the knife avoided. His outlooks for 2017 appears good, as all involved are optimistic he can return to pick up where he left off.
Let’s just hope the new clubhouse chef knows a sandwich recipe Nola likes better than what he was served in 2016.
Grade: C, but with the BABIP curve, it’s really more like a B+.