What’s Up With Aaron Nola?

In 2018, Aaron Nola was one of the undisputed best pitchers in baseball. Nola finished third in the NL Cy Young voting and finished the season 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. Opposing hitters only managed to hit for a .197 average against him, and he was able to limit base-runners as a whole with a 0.97 WHIP. Because of these eye popping stats, many expected Nola to continue his brilliance into 2019. That has not happened so far.

In four starts so far in 2019, Nola has been roughed up to the tune of a 7.45 ERA and a .280 batting average against. He has already allowed 5 home runs in those four starts after allowing only 17 in 33 starts last season. Nola insists that he is healthy and has no lingering injuries. So, this begs the question, “What’s up with Aaron Nola?”

Command Issues

The most peculiar thing about Nola this year has been his lack of command. Dating back to when the Phillies selected him seventh overall in the 2014 draft, Nola’s command has been seen as his best quality. When he has his elite command, Nola is able to throw his fastball to all corners of the plate to get ahead in the count. After getting the hitter behind, Nola mixes in a devastating curveball and a good changeup.

Nola hasn’t been able to quickly get behind hitters as easily in 2019. He’s only been able to throw a first pitch strike to 48 percent of batters. That is way down from 69 percent last year and below his career average of 65 percent. Nola has fallen behind counts early and has struggled to get back ahead, evidenced by his 12.6 percent walk rate which is nearly double his career average. 

Getting Squared Up

Nola’s strikeout percentage of 21.8 isn’t too far off of his career average of 25.5 percent, but it is his lowest since his rookie year in 2015. Despite this, his pitches are getting hit much more than they previously have. The percentage of hard hit balls against Nola so far this season is 42, whereas last year it was 31 percent. His pitches are connecting with 10 percent more barrels over last year. The exit velocity of the hits he’s surrendered are also 5 MPH higher. 

Searching for the hook

Nola’s put-away pitch is his curveball. He throws it in two different variations that he uses to either lock hitters up or get them to swing over the top of it. The pitch was a huge factor in his success last year, as hitters were only able to hit .155 against it and struck out on it nearly 42 percent of the time. This year however, the pitch is a huge factor in Nola’s early struggles. 

Nola is throwing the hook at a nearly identical rate, except this year it is getting hit at a drastically higher clip. Opponents are hitting a whopping .348 against it. The swing and miss percentage is also down 10 percent from last year, as is the strikeout percentage. The spin rate on the pitch is practically the same, but it’s obvious that Nola doesn’t have the same feel for it yet that he did last year, and hitters are much more capable of hitting it. Finding his nasty curveball will be key to Nola righting the ship in 2019. 

Possible Fatigue?

The 2018 season was the first time Aaron Nola crossed 200 innings in his major league career. Across 33 starts, Nola threw 212 and one third innings, blowing past his previous career high in 2017 of 168 innings over 27 starts. It’s perfectly logical that Nola is still feeling some effects from throwing that many innings for the first time in his young career. 

This is a bit reminiscent of a former Phillies pitcher that was also a top draft pick, 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels. During that magical year, Hamels threw 227 innings in the regular season and an additional 35 innings in the postseason for a total of 262 innings. This was Hamels’ career high to that point and a huge jump from his 2007 numbers. The following year, Hamels had his worst season as a pro. As we all know by now, Hamels then returned to form in 2010, and the rest is history.

So should I be concerned?

Nola’s struggles are not too worrisome in a long term sense. Even though he is just 25, he already has a track record of being a good-to-elite pitcher. His 2018 season was one of the best seasons by any pitcher in Phillies history, which is remarkable considering the rich history of great pitchers in red pinstripes. It’s reasonable to believe he may not reach those ridiculous heights again, but it’s also incredibly likely and fair to conclude he is nowhere near as bad as his early 2019 numbers are showing.

What about this season?

Nola isn’t the only big name pitcher off to a rough start to the 2019 season. Two time Cy Young winner and 2018 finalist Corey Kluber has a 6.16 ERA. Chris Sale, the ace of the defending champion Boston Red Sox, checks in at a 9.00 ERA. Zack Greinke has a 5.79 ERA out in Arizona. Looking inside the division, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard is sitting at a 5.63 ERA. The Nats’ Stephen Strasburg has a 5.40 ERA in three starts. Even defending NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom recently threw a dud, a four inning performance against the Twins on April 9th in which he gave up six earned runs. 

Although there’s plenty of reason to believe that Nola will eventually rediscover himself, that does not mean there isn’t concern for this season. Despite all the other improvements made to the roster this past offseason, the Phillies decided to stay pat and keep the same rotation. Aaron Nola was supposed to be the one sure thing in a rotation full of questions. They needed him to be pitcher the team could count on every fifth day to give them a chance to win. That has not been the case through four starts. The Phillies pitching staff as a whole is 19th in baseball with a collective 4.72 ERA. If the Phillies want to reach the postseason and make some noise, they are going to need Aaron Nola to return to ace form.