When the Philadelphia Phillies take the field in Houston to start off the World Series on Friday, they’ll 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 its rebuilding process, experiencing all the highs and lows that come with the territory. And while much of the discussion about how far the Phillies have come centers around the team’s bounce-back from a 21-29 start, Nola himself also has gone through a similar arc, moving from a forgettable 2021 season to helping pitch his team to the cusp of a championship.
As recently as last September, Nola completed his season as a primary source of blame for a Phillies year that went like every 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 to,” 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 would indicate. 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’s turned him into 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 aimless struggle and more a refinement of his process.
Nola’s 2020 numbers — a 3.28 ERA in the COVID-19-truncated season, 2.9 walks per nine, 12.1 strikeouts per nine — came during a campaign in which he’d deemphasized his fastball, throwing it less often than his curveball or his changeup. It’s easy to see why: he was far less effective at throwing his fastball in the strike zone than he was with his changeup. Combine that with getting hitters to chase — not just the fastball, but all his offerings, with a career-best percentage of 38.5 percent on pitches outside the zone — and it seemed 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 as Nola threw it more. That made for a difficult combination — Nola allowed 11 home runs on his four-seam fastball and another 10 on his curve, even as he continued to hone his control of all his pitches. It’s worth noting that his forgettable 2021 season included a walk rate of just 1.9 walks per nine, at that point the best rate of his career. It’s why his fielding-independent pitching metrics made Nola look like the ace he would return to being in 2022, even as his top-line stats led to disappointment and regret.
He’d thrown the fewest pitches in the strike zone of his career in 2020. Not only was he throwing the ball in the strike zone more in 2021, he was putting it right where hitters could tee off on it. In 2020, for instance, 4.32 percent of his pitches were middle-middle. In 2021? That jumped to 7.16 percent, while the frequency of that tantalizing pitch down the middle but just out of the strike zone was cut nearly in half. It was no accident the percentage of pitches hitters hacked at in the strike zone reached a career-high 68.1 percent in 2021.
Control without command leads to a FIP value that seems misleading. Yes, there was reason for optimism heading into 2022, but Nola had things to fix, too.
And he sure did. One key was a cutter, which he introduced late in 2021, that broke sharply into left-handed hitters, away from righties. That 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 his secondary pitches out of the strike zone. But he didn’t give up control for command, either — now he simply doesn’t walk anybody at all, with a Saberhagenian 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. Poise. You name all those things, he’s got it all. He’s even-keeled every day. Doesn’t matter whether he’s pitching, not pitching, whether he’s pitching well, not pitching well, doesn’t matter. He goes about his business the same way every day. And with his talent and that type of makeup and all the intangibles he brings, that, to me, makes him a playoff type pitcher, big game pitcher.”
Nola didn’t walk any Padres in Game 2 of the NLCS last Wednesday, his most recent start, but he had himself a very Aaron Nola-in-2021 game. In the 8-5 loss, he allowed six runs overall, 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 launched four-seamers, in the zone — and Nola allowed eight hard-hit balls in his 81 offerings. He threw four cutters all day, none in especially effective spots.
But Game 1 of the World Series is another day. And Nola will have another chance to learn from his mistakes and get better, in the biggest start of his 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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