Graduating to Better Things: Aaron Nola

Even though J.P. Crawford is likely to go down as the best draft pick of the Phillies’ rebuild, the #7 pick in the 2014 draft was the most important pick of the Phillies’ rebuild (or at least until the #1 pick in the 2016 draft).  It was the Phillies’ highest pick in over a decade and the player taken was going to decide the direction of the future.  Aaron Nola was generally considered the 2nd best college pitcher in the draft and was seen as one of the most advanced players in the draft.  At the time (and continuing to today) Nola has been knocked for being too safe and lacking in upside, but the Phillies still took him #7 (most prognosticators had him in the 6-10 range).  Since then Nola has shown a skillset that is uncommon in the game, starting with pitch command rarely seen in today’s game.  The Phillies may have taken their time getting him to the majors, but Aaron Nola arrived in the majors this summer and almost immediately assumed the mantle of the top starting pitcher in the Phillies’ rotation (well at least once Cole Hamels was traded).

What Was Written Before the Season:

Role: #2/#3 Starter
Risk: Low – Nola is major league ready right now.  However, he could use some time in the minors to continue to polish his control and secondary pitches.
Summary:  Nola has been described as “safe” and “polished”, words that may give some the impression that he lacks impact as a pitching prospect.  Nola’s fastball sits 90-93 and routinely touches 95, and in college he was able to get to 97 in a big showdown with Tyler Beede.  The discussion of his velocity overshadows the explosive late life on his fastball, though this movement was less present late in the season as he tired.  The more advanced of Nola’s secondary pitches is his breaking ball, which is really a curveball but Nola’s arm slot makes it look like a slider, that he can spot in the zone and use it as a chase pitch.  The general consensus is that it has plus potential if he gains consistency.  Nola also has a changeup that flashes plus potential, but Nola does not use it as confidently as the fastball or curveball.  On top of the three plus pitches, Nola has good control, is developing solid command, and has an impressive feel for pitching.  On an individual basis, Nola’s stuff is only solid, but the full collection makes for an impressive arsenal.  The likely outcome for Nola is as a mid-rotation starter who could get there fairly quickly.  However, Nola’s feel for pitching could see continued growth in his secondary pitches, as well as results that are above his individual pitch grades.  Nola will start 2015 in the minors, and he should make the majors at some point in the second half of the 2015 season.

What Happened in the Minors:

Stat Line (AA): 12 G 76.2 IP 1.88 ERA 4 HR 9 BB (3.1%) 59 K (20.5%)
Stat Line (AAA): 6 G 32.2 IP 3.58 ERA 3 HR 9 BB (6.4%) 33 K (23.4%)

There were many people who wanted the Phillies to start Aaron Nola in the majors, instead they started him back in Reading to work on polishing his game.  The big point of emphasis for the Phillies and Nola was in finding consistency in his curveball.  Specifically because of Nola’s low arm slot the Phillies wanted him to work on staying on top of his curveball so that it maintained its vertical movement, otherwise the pitch had a tendency to flatten out into a loopy slurve.  Over the course of his time in Reading Nola mastered the curveball and curveball command.  That second part comes across much more mundanely than it actually is, because there are few major league pitchers who have curveball command, seeing it in AA is a feat I have not seen repeated.  Nola showed the ability not just to place the pitch in a quadrant of the zone or to use it for a chase pitch, but to place the final location and manipulate the shape of the break.  The most devastating version of this was Nola starting the pitch in the right handed batters box and dropping it to the bottom corner for a strike.  Left handed batters would give up on the pitch and right handed batters would bail, if the hitter wised up, Nola would bury the next curveball out of the strikezone.

The curveball was not the only pitch needing work in the minors, Nola’s changeup lacked consistency coming into the year.  To rewind some, Nola’s natural fastball has arm side run to it, he will throw a pitch classified as a sinker with more run and sink to it  as well.  Nola’s changeup at its best lives in the same movement spectrum as his fastball and sinker, but often in the minors he was not getting the fade on it, and it was actually the straightest pitch in his arsenal.  Late in his time in the minors (in particularly AAA), Nola started starts throwing just the fastball and the changeup.  The results were not always great (he bailed himself out of his final AAA start by going to his curveball to devastate Rochester), but there was more consistency by the time of his promotion.

What Happened in the Majors:

Stat Line: 13 G 77.2 IP 3.59 ERA 11 HR 19 BB (6.0%) 68 K (21.4%)
Major League Debut: July 21, 2015

Aaron Nola arrived in the majors to a lot of hype and promptly lost his first game despite pitching well.  From there his season was up and down, highlighted by limiting walks and allowing a lot of home runs.  Nola struggled greatly against LHBs, especially with missing bats (more on that later), but was dominant against RHBs with a 5.2% BB% and 27.5% K%.  He was equally home prone against both sided batters.  His ground ball rates were solid, but not spectacular.  His home run to fly ball rates were on the high side, so there is a chance that the home run rate does come down some.

In terms of pitches, Nola’s curveball was his dominating weapon and he was able to use it in much the same way in the majors as he was able to use it in the minors.  Nola mixed a four seam fastball and a pitch classified by Brooksbaseball as a sinker, with a shift more towards the sinker as the season went on.  The velocity on both fastballs converged as the season went on, though the sinker has more horizontal and vertical movement.  The pitch that saw a dramatic drop in usage was his changeup, which was also his weakest pitch.

What I wanted to really focus on was Nola’s struggles vs left handed batters.  The big issue to me is that Nola lacks a way to really attack batters.  His curveball is a good pitch, but he can’t work it inside too much to left handed batters because the break puts it into the bat path.  The changeup should be a good weapon against left handed batters, but it has nothing to play off of.  Nola’s fastball moves armside (towards the right handed batters box) so it is not ideal for working inside to left handed batters, and he does not have the velocity to tie players up inside and then work away.  This leaves his location vs left handed batters looking like this:

Nola v LHB

As we see Nola is working that bottom corner of the zone away from the batter.  This limits the damage somewhat because he can stay away from the batter’s power and get weak contact if they do get to the baseball.  However, he is not getting swings and misses with this strategy.

Nola whiff

Nola just isn’t going to survive going forward with a 12% K% vs left handed batters.  Right now he is good enough to keep his walks down (relatively), but he is working deeper, high stress counts vs left handed batters.

The Future:

Whereas the future section for most players has been throwing some cold water on their future, this is the exact opposite for Nola.  He is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential.  It is important to remember that he made his major league debut just over a year after being drafted, and that by the time he arrived in the majors he had already pitched 109.1 minor league innings.  He is a very cerebral pitcher, and one who is going to learn.  His biggest room for growth is going to be solving left handed batters, and he frankly needs another pitch to do it.  As we saw above, he has to work away from left handed batters because of his arsenal, and so he needs something to get inside on batters.  This leads to him needing to develop some sort of cutter or slider type pitch to give him the glove side movement his arsenal has lacked since cleaning up the curveball.  His arm slot and delivery are conducive to such a pitch, as his feel for spin.  This might not be something he adds early in his career, but it is not uncommon to see pitchers with Nola’s type of feel adding and adapting pitches.

As for the rest of his future, it is all about getting comfortable and more polished.  Despite having plus command, he still makes mistakes and bad pitches, and his arsenal does not give him the room for mistakes that is afforded to pitcher with a power based arsenal.  I expect the walks to go down and the strikeouts to creep up some, but not to elite levels.  Nola is never going to flashy, he is never going to be an ace, but he is going to be a really good pitcher for many years.  In the end the Phillies may have passed on some good players at #7 in the draft, some that likely end up better than Nola, but what they did get is a guy who is going to be exactly what they paid for.  In a way it does set the tone for the rebuild, the Phillies don’t need to flashy or make a splash, they just have to not miss at the opportunities that do present themselves.

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman

Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.

1 comment

  1. Handzus

    I’m very interested to see Nola with a fresh arm next year. He did pretty well in the majors for a young pitcher who probably wasn’t working with his best stuff. And I agree about him adding a pitch. The Phils have some recent history with pitchers adding cutters- Hamels, Madson and Kendrick come to mind as guys who added the pitch after they got to the majors.