Aaron Nola was selected by the Phillies in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2014 draft, and immediately breezed through the minor leagues. As a polished college prospect, the Phillies were aggressive with Nola’s development. The right-hander never saw competition below High A. All told, he spent 164.2 innings in the minors, posting a 2.57 ERA with a 1.057 WHIP. His strikeout numbers weren’t dazzling (7.5 per nine innings), but his meager walk totals (1.5 per nine innings) more than made up for his lack of whiffs. Nola entered the 2015 season as the 60th best prospect in the league, according to Baseball Prospectus, and his production did little to dissuade anyone that, at the very least, the Phillies had a no-doubt middle of the rotation cog for years to come.
Nola got the call to the big club in July 2015 and posted solid, if unspectacular numbers from the jump. In 77.2 innings after his call-up, he was perfectly serviceable, striking out 68 batters, compared to only 19 walks. He posted a 3.59 ERA, but was probably even a little better than that number, as his 3.38 DRA might suggest. Again, solid, if unspectacular. While Nola showed signs of promise in his first stint as a big league pitcher, none of his skills seemed to translate into him becoming an elite pitcher. His ERA ranked in the top 50 among starting pitchers, as did his 47.6 percent ground ball rate. His 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings were slightly better than league average, and the same can be said for his cFIP of 91. None of this is meant to disparage Nola in any way. A slightly above average major league pitcher is super valuable. Mike Leake got five years and $75 million, after all.
Then a funny thing happened. In 2016, Nola decided to stop being slightly above average. In 2016, Nola decided to be awesome. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and no a 4.78 ERA isn’t awesome. I agree, but there are factors that point to Nola being a little unlucky with his earned runs. Let’s unpack that number a little. One adjustment that Nola seemed to make heading into 2016 was an effort to throw his sinker more. In 2015, around 23 percent of his pitches were sinkers. In 2016, that number jumped to 44 percent. The result: more ground balls. This season, Nola induced 55.2 percent ground balls, a number that ranked 7th best among starters. Ordinarily, this would be great news for run prevention. However, the Phillies were the 8th worst team in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus defensive efficiency. Hitters posted a .334 BABIP against Nola, good for 12th worst in the league. In addition, his 60.6 left on base percentage (league average is 72.9 percent) was second worst in the league among starters, with only renowned hurler Tyler Duffey posting worse numbers. So, yes, a 4.78 ERA isn’t great, but bad defense paired with a little bad luck does not help with rate stats. To further illustrate the puzzling nature of Nola’s season, he posted a 3.08 FIP and 2.35 (!) DRA.
While Nola’s rate numbers weren’t great, he made serious strides elsewhere. The “knock” on Nola coming out of college was that he just didn’t miss enough bats, a symptom that would keep him from ever being a truly top of the rotation pitcher. By adjusting his pitch mix (relying more heavily on his sinker and curve), Nola added nearly two strikeouts per nine innings in 2016. He struck out 4.17 batters for every walk issued, a rate that would include him in the top 20 of all major league starters (Just an aside that has nothing to do with Aaron Nola: Clayton Kershaw led the league with 15.64 strikeouts per walk. Second place went to Rick Porcello, with 5.91 strikeouts per walk. Good lord.). Nola’s new arsenal unearthed a 75 cFIP, a number that put him in elite company, sixth best in baseball behind only Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard, Rich Hill, and Carlos Carrasco.
*Ok, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to address the giant 600-pound elephant in the room. Nola was shut down on July 28, and diagnosed with a sprained UCL. There’s really no way to spin that into a positive, that isn’t good. That said, it could help to explain Nola’s dip in production. According to Brooks Baseball, Nola’s average velocity began to fall slightly in early June, basically coinciding with his slide. In his first 78 innings before the decline, Nola posted a 2.65 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while striking out 85 batters and walking only 15. After June 11, he tossed 33 innings with a 9.82 ERA and 2.06 WHIP. He still struck out 36 batters, but his walk rate took a huge jump, ballooning to 3.82 per nine innings. On one hand, it’s another lively round of “Fun with Arbitrary Endpoints”. On the other, it’s a tale of two seasons: one healthy and one not, with the injury playing the major culprit in Nola’s rough patch.
Within the last week, Nola has started throwing again to test his elbow. The fact that those dreaded three letters still loom over his head, or more aptly, his elbow, makes him a very tricky player to assess heading into 2017. Time will tell whether the strain is a bump in the road or a major setback in his career. That said, Nola was starting to show ace-level skills early in the 2016 season and right now it’s unlikely he’s being valued as an ace-level pitcher. If you have the stomach for risk, and if you can weather the worst case scenario, now might be the perfect time to scoop up Nola in your dynasty league.
Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie