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. Continue reading…

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.

Embed from Getty Images – Us, too, Aaron, Us, too.

Continue reading…

Exploiting Bottom of the Zone Amplifies Phils’ Dominant Curveballs

Last week I explored the Phillies’ pitching staff’s ability to make hitters chase pitches while keeping swing rates down on balls in the zone. The numbers are staggering, but how exactly are they doing it? The answer: their most potent weapon, the curveball, plays incredibly well off their location-based, non-overpowering fastballs.

Exploiting the bottom-most edge of the strike zone makes a lot of sense given the current make-up of the arms manager Pete Mackanin sends to the mound. The staff as a whole lacks the dominant velocity that allows some leeway when leaving balls up in the zone. Despite an average fastball velocity only better than the Angels and Astros, according to Statcast, opponents haven’t punished the Phils’ offerings up over the plate.

Opponents are slugging .494 (eleventh-lowest in the league) against Phillies’ fastballs up in the zone with middle tier .224 isolated power. The teams with the three highest opposing batting averages against fastballs up in the zone all rank in the bottom five in average fastball velocity. But the Phillies are the outlier. Continue reading…

Nola’s Other Pitch

Aaron Nola‘s curveball has received a lot of attention this year, and rightly so.  Nola has seemingly ridden an increased use of the pitch to raise his profile from solid starter to hearing whispers of “ace” just a month into the season. His curveball is undeniably excellent, possibly the best in the baseball, and now he’s throwing it more often without any decrease in effectiveness.

Year Thrown% Ball% Strike% Swing% Whiff%
2015 24% 28% 42% 49% 20%
2016 34% 27% 46% 48% 21%

It was a simple adjustment, and one that has been well documented. But while the curveball has gotten all the attention, it’s really only half the story behind Nola’s rise this year. The other half, the one where he has made the bigger adjustment, is the two seam fastball. Continue reading…