For the most part this year I have avoided talking about Aaron Nola because there hasn’t been much to add to the conversation. Nola hasn’t seen a big jump in raw stuff, he hasn’t lit up radar guns, he has met every scouting report. On the surface he is a 6’2″ starter with a fastball with above average to plus velocity (90-94 T96) with very good movement, a curveball that now sits somewhere close to plus, and a changeup that is above average and will flash plus. He has dominated his competition to a 2.31 ERA with 24 walks and 128 strikeouts over 155.2 innings pitched. He has even reached AAA in his first full season (which is a much slower pace than some wanted him to move at). So what is there to say about Aaron Nola?
For one that profile I wrote above is not normal. Nola is talked about as a command player or not a flame thrower, even in writeups when he is ranked as one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues. The number of pitchers in the minor with a realistic chance at 3 plus major league pitches goes Lucas Giolito, Julio Urias, Aaron Nola. Some guys have devastating fastballs and breaking balls, some like Luis Severino have a fastball and a changeup, but is fairly rare to have 3 weapons in an arsenal that are legitimate weapons. This type of arsenal is the dream scenario for low-A super prospects. On top of having the arsenal, Aaron Nola knows how to use it.
This brings us to what really isn’t normal about Aaron Nola, his command. Command and its cousin control get thrown around a lot, but are rarely fully explained. Control is the ability to throw a pitch for a strike, command is the ability to throw a pitch where you want it, and with the shape you want it to have. There are a decent amount of pitchers in the minor leagues with pieces of fastball command. It can be a guy who throws at a lower velocity and has to locate to have success, or it can be someone like the Phillies’ own Zach Eflin who can command a pitch thrown in a general area (such as running a two seam fastball in the lower right corner of the strikezone). This kind of thing isn’t common, but you do see it. Nola is at the top of the spectrum when it comes to fastball command, he can locate it anywhere in the zone and will almost never leave it in the middle of the zone. On top of locating the fastball, Nola will manipulate the shape and velocity of the pitch, giving it more or less armside run and ranging in 7 mph velocity range.
This does not account for the unique skill Nola will show, off speed command. Nola’s curveball has good depth, and has gotten more downward bite this year, but is not a monster pitch like Lucas Giolito’s. But he can have the pitch go anywhere he wants it to. He has shown between AA and AAA that he can backdoor it to lefties, start it in to righties and break it in for a strike, start it in the zone and bury it, and just drop it in for a strike. He can change the lateral movement on the curveball has well, but the Phillies have worked on keeping him over top of the pitch more as it had a tendency to frisbee across the zone last year (I would not be surprised if he brings a true slider into his arsenal in the future). If there is a knock against Nola it is the changeup command. He does not have the same manipulation abilities, but he can locate the pitch fairly well.
S0 the question becomes, where does Nola go from here and when is he major league ready? The answer to the second question is easier, because he was major league ready the moment he signed a pro-contract. However, he has done a lot to really go from a ready to go #3 starter to someone with a more polished arsenal that really is a #2 starting pitcher. This feeds into what does he still need to do. He needs to keep executing his pitches and pitching games. Nola has such an advanced feel for the game you can see him making adjustments to his pitching during the course of the game. He can step into the majors right now and is rapidly running out of things to work on in AAA, but his time has been well spent and the Phillies have helped him become a real building block for the their future.