The Many Sides of Pulling Aaron Nola Early
There has been a lot written and said angrily about Gabe Kapler pulling Aaron Nola after 68 pitches in the 6th inning of Opening Day against the Braves. I took a side yesterday, it turned out to not be the reason the Phillies used, and of course the bullpen gave up a bunch of runs and blew the game. So rather than give a single side, I am going to look at all the various parts of the decision.
Rest Nola, It Is Game 1 of 162
This was my initial gut feeling on the move. Aaron Nola threw in the high 60 pitches in his last spring training start, he could have gone probably into the low 80s, but he wasn’t going for a long outing. At the time of the move, there was a man on base and the Phillies were up 5-0. The information at the time was that the Phillies had 9 pitchers in the bullpen (we later learned Pat Neshek was injured), which should be fine for getting 11 outs (at least that is the theory). So overall the thought here is that Nola pitched less than 170 innings last year, and with the Phillies’ emphasis on rest and keeping their pitchers healthy, this game presented an opportunity to get out of it with a sub 70 pitch outing from Nola to have him well rested for his next start and the rest of the season.
Third Time Through the Order Plus Two Lefties Could be a Problem for Aaron Nola
Those are Aaron Nola’s splits the first, second, and third time through the order in the 2017 season. Across baseball we have seen the same trend, that hitters are much better after seeing a pitcher multiple times in a game. Now that is over a full year and does not account for the individual game to game discrepancies. Then there is the fact that there were two lefties coming up to bat. Nola’s addition of a changeup last year reduced his platoon splits, but lefties hit .255/.324/.414 off of him last year, as opposed to righties which hit .228/.271/.355 off of him.
Hoby Milner is Really Good Against Lefties
When Gabe Kapler pulled Aaron Nola it was for lefty Hoby Milner. Hoby Milner was good at one thing last year, and it was getting left handed batters to make weak outs. With 12 strikeouts in 75 PA, he didn’t strike them out. However, lefties hit .159/.274/.190 off of him last year, with only 2 extra base hits. If Milner can get Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis out, then it is 3 innings for the bullpen to get up by 5 runs. The counter point to this is, that Milner’s great 2017 was BABIP aided and his lack of strikeout stuff was a problem. Also Freddie Freeman is really good.
Aaron Nola is Your Ace and You Trust Him
This is the most traditional answer. You set some sort of upper limit for pitch count based on workload and until Nola hits that or struggles you let him go. Freeman has good numbers off of Nola and walked in his last at bat, but with the pitches in the arsenal to work with and the low pitch count, Nola has a decent chance to do something vs Freeman. Even if Nola isn’t going to go more than 6 innings in the game, you could use Milner (and Luis Garcia) later in the game or just turn things over to the bullpen with two less outs to get. You also don’t give up any sort of momentum.
If You Are Going To Pull Nola You Should Have Pinch Hit For Him
Another part of the puzzle is that Aaron Nola hit in the previous inning with the bases loaded and two outs. At the time the Phillies had Scott Kingery, Odubel Herrera, Pedro Florimon, and Jorge Alfaro on the bench. It was 5-0 at the time so taking Nola out without knowing the events of the next inning would be lunacy. However, if you are in Gabe Kapler’s mind and know you are not going to let Nola go through the order a third time, do you consider pinch hitting and giving a reliever like Jake Thompson or Drew Hutchison a clean inning to work with.
In the end it is a lot of variables in play. It is the first game of the year and one decision in a series of decisions, and it probably wasn’t the one to cost the game (that could have been Ramos’s pitching, Neris deciding to give Markakis a meatball). Teams are setting themselves up to have more information than ever before and asking managers to make decisions in quick time on small percentage advantages. There will be nights like opening night all year, and nights when it works, but each decision has a lot pathways and reasons.