Aaron Nola embodies the Phillies’ Topsy-Turvy Path To The World Series
When the Philadelphia Phillies take the field in Houston to start the World Series on Friday, they will send Aaron Nola to the mound with the task of setting the tone. It’s a perfect fit — and not just because Nola led the team in pitching wins above replacement during the regular season. The 29-year-old righty has been with the franchise since early in the rebuilding process, and has experienced all the ups and downs that come with the territory. And while much of the discussion about how far the Phillies have come revolves around the team’s rebound from a 21-29 start, Nola himself has also gone through a similar arc, going from a forgettable 2021 season to helping pitch his team to the top of a championship.
As recently as last September, Nola finished his season as a primary source of blame for a Phillies year that went like any other since 2012 — without a postseason appearance.
“I didn’t put the team in the best position to win as many times as I wanted,” Nola said during Philadelphia’s final series of the season. “Obviously.”
But there was a sense, even at the conclusion of last season, that Nola was better than his raw numbers suggest. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that not only was Nola’s 2022 process a recipe for success, it was a reinvention of his pitching, one that has made him an even better pitcher than he was in his All-Star 2018 campaign , or in 2020, when he finished seventh in the National League Cy Young voting. 2021 was less a matter of goalless struggle and more of a refinement of his process.
Nola’s 2020s — a 3.28 ERA in the COVID-19 shortened season, 2.9 walks per nine, 12.1 strikeouts per nine — came during a campaign in which he had emphasized his fastball, throwing it less often than the curveball or changeup. It’s easy to see why: he was far less effective throwing his fastball into the strike zone than he was with his changeup. Combine that with getting hitters to chase — not just his fastball, but all of his offerings, with a career-best 38.5 percent percentage on pitches outside the zone — and it seemed like Nola had found a new formula.
But in 2021, hitters adjusted (as hitters often do), waiting him out and finding plenty of success against his fastball, even though Nola threw it more. It made for a difficult combination — Nola allowed 11 home runs on his four-seam fastball and another 10 on the curve, even as he continued to hone his control over all of his pitches. It’s worth noting that his forgettable 2021 season included a walk rate of just 1.9 walks per nine, at the time the best rate of his career. That’s why his field-independent pitching metrics made Nola look like the ace he’d return to being in 2022, even if the top-line stats led to disappointment and regret.
He had thrown the fewest pitches in the strike zone of his career in 2020. Not only did he throw the ball more in the strike zone in 2021, he put it right where hitters could hit it. In 2020, for example, 4.32 percent of his pitches were middle-middle. In 2021? That jumped to 7.16 percent, while the frequency of the tempting pitch up the middle but just outside the strike zone nearly halved. It was no coincidence that the percentage of fielders hacked in the strike zone reached a career-high 68.1 percent in 2021.
Control without a command leads to a FIP value that appears misleading. Yes, there was reason for optimism towards 2022, but Nola had things to fix as well.
And he sure did. One key was a cutter, which he introduced late in 2021, that broke sharply into left-handed batters, away from righties. It forced hitters to stop sitting on the four-seamer, which he threw consistently in the strike zone, and led to a return in hitters chasing their secondary pitches out of the strike zone. But he didn’t give up control for the command, either – now he’s simply not walking anyone at all, with a Saberhagen-esque rate of 1.3 per nine.
His manager, Rob Thomson, called him “a playoff pitcher” earlier this month. Asked to expand on that, Thomson said: “Stuff. Demeanor. Posture. You name it all, he’s got it all. He’s even-keeled every day. It doesn’t matter if he’s pitching, not pitching, if he’s pitching well, doesn’t pitch well, doesn’t matter. He works the same way every day. And with his talent and the kind of makeup and all the intangibles he brings, to me that makes him a playoff-type pitcher, a great pitcher.”
Nola walked no Padres in Game 2 of the NLCS last Wednesday, his last start, but he had a very Aaron Nola-in-2021 game himself. In the 8-5 loss, he allowed six total runs, including two on a pair of solo shots by Brandon Drury and Josh Bell on back-to-back pitches in the bottom of the second inning. Both Drury and Bell pitched four-seamers in the zone — and Nola allowed eight hard-hit balls in his 81 offerings. He threw four cutters all day, none in particularly effective spots.
But Game 1 of the World Series is another day. And Nola will get another chance to learn from her mistakes and improve, in the biggest start of her career. Considering where he and the Phillies have been — and how far they’ve come — they wouldn’t have it any other way.
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