2017 Phillies Report Card: Aaron Nola
Aaron Nola‘s arm injury in 2016 might have been the low point of the Phillies’ rebuild. Nola was supposed to be the sure thing in the rebuild, a command oriented middle of the rotation arm advanced beyond his years. After an offseason of worry, things did not get off to a good start. A back injury and poor performance had Nola sitting at 6 games started, 32 innings, and a 5.06 ERA by the end of May.
The rest of the season was dominant.
In the next 4 months, Nola would not miss a start. He pitched 136 innings, had a 3.18 ERA, and struck out 155, while walking only 38. He topped it all of with 43 strike outs in 30.1 innings in September. Not only did he put up great numbers in 2017, Nola showed that he was not only healthy, he was better. His fastball (both 4 and 2 seam) averaged over a mile per hour higher than it had in 2016. He found feel for his changeup more, throwing it much harder than he had in the past and nearly twice as often. The consequence was a higher whiff rate on the pitch. As his changeup improved, so did his curveball. Early in the season he was unable to miss bats with it, but by the end of the season it was an elite weapon again.
The increased strikeout is a bit of a surprise given Nola’s reputation coming up through the minors and his rookie year. Nola is walking a few more batters than he did in his 2015 debut, but his strikeout rate is over 5% higher than it was then. The core of Nola’s profile has always been the ability to limit walks and have high ground ball rates. He was not amazing with his walk rate, but his 7.1% rate tied him with Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. When it came to ground balls, Nola was once again among the leaders, with a 49.8% ground ball rate, good enough for 11th among pitchers with at least 160 innings.
Even with missing about a month of the season, Nola’s cumulative numbers had him on the fringes of the Cy Young competition. His fWAR (4.3) was 12th in baseball and 7th in the NL. By Baseball Reference’s WAR (4.5_ he was 15th in baseball and 7th in the NL. The most optimistic on Nola’s 2017 season was Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (5.5) based on DRA which has Nola at 6th in baseball and 4th in the NL. In all of these cumulative metrics, Nola’s 168 innings.
Given his higher velocity and strikeout rate, it is probably time to reevaluate Nola’s future role. He still doesn’t profile as an ace. He would need anther large unforeseen developmental leap to be on the level of Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw. That said he isn’t a mid rotation arm any more, and probably will be the Phillies top starting pitcher for most of their next run. He should compete for Cy Young awards, he probably won’t win any, but neither did Cole Hamels, and the Phillies won a World Series with him as their top arm.
Nola isn’t going to blow anyone away with pure velocity, but freezing guys with changeups and making them weak in the knees with curveballs, all while playing head games with his fastball is going to work. We saw that last year, and hopefully we’ll see it for many more.