Aaron Nola: Can He Join the Elite Pitchers in 2021?
There’s the Aaron Nola that we all grew to love following the 2018 fantasy baseball season. After having a rough 2019 relative to where he was drafted, Nola returned to form in the shortened 2020 season. Across 71.1 innings pitched, Nola had a 3.28 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and an impressive 96 strikeouts. One look at his baseball savant percentile rankings, and you can enjoy a lot of red across the page.
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Diving into Aaron Nola
His hard-hit data is not ideal, but a 91st percentile strikeout rate, a 78th percentile whiff rate, and 75th percentile xERA & xwOBA stick out like a sore thumb. There was a reason behind Nola’s spike in swing and miss that will be touched on further into the article, but the data checks out to support it. Of concern, however, is that batted ball data. When hitters put the ball in play against Nola, they hit it hard often. All that will be discussed in this breakdown of the Philadelphia Phillies ace, leading to the final discussion, can Aaron Nola be a top-five starter in fantasy baseball?
Pitch Arsenal and Pitch Mix
Changeup (27.4% usage)
If there was one noticeable thing that Aaron Nola did differently in 2020 than in years prior, he upped his changeup usage. He upped it so much, that it was his primary pitch for the shortened season.
Thrown at a relatively high mark of 84.9-mph, Nola’s changeup sits perfectly between his fastball and his curveball in terms of velocity. As Gleyber Torres figured out above, the pitch gets a decent bit of downward movement, dropping 35.5-inches on average. It also has solid horizontal movement, having 14.5-inches of break. What makes the changeup even more devastating is the fact that it plays off of his curveball perfectly. In the tweet below, the two pitches start off on opposite sides of one another, eventually crossing paths, and then running away from one another.
Aaron Nola curveball and change up overlay.
[via Rob Friedman]
— Phillies Nation (@PhilliesNation) August 25, 2019
Don’t believe that the pitch was successful? Aaron Nola was top-10 with the pitch in swinging strikes, gave up a .225 batting average against, and hitters’ average launch angle was negative 6-degrees. By upping his changeup to the percentage he threw it at, Nola’s overall strikeout percentage and swinging-strike rate were at career highs. Also of note, Nola had an insane 77.1% groundball rate when throwing his changeup. That is beyond elite, especially being his primary pitch. The changeup strongly supports Aaron Nola being a swing and miss pitcher moving forward.
Curveball (26.7% usage)
Although the changeup was an excellent pitch, Nola’s curveball is the true elite pitch that he throws. The movement on the pitch is matched by few. Thrown at 78.6-mph, Nola gets 54.8-inches of drop. Relative to other pitches of similar velocity and release point, it gets 4-inches more drop than those similar curveballs. The horizontal break on the pitch is what makes it truly spectacular. Perhaps the reason Nola doesn’t throw a slider is that his curveball is the equivalent of a slider with more drop. His 15.1-inches of break ranks him top-10 amongst starters, and would rank him top-10 amongst starters who throw sliders as well.
The results don’t lie, as Aaron Nola truly has one of the elite pitchers in the game. In 2020, opponents hit .187 against the pitch, with a .247 xwOBA, a 42.1% whiff rate, and an insane 22.5% swinging-strike rate (2nd in baseball behind Shane Bieber). There are not many pitchers out there who can show off those kinds of numbers with a pitch they throw one-fourth of the time. Nola’s curveball can make the argument for being not only the best curveball in baseball but also the best pitch.
4-Seam Fastball (25.3% usage)
Aaron Nola has a relatively low fastball 4-seam fastball usage, primarily because of the aforementioned curveball and changeup. That is a good thing. When hitters can sit fastball, dangerous things happen. Nola doesn’t give them the luxury to sit fastball, because of his pitch mix. It is a fairly average fastball, averaging 92.8-mph, with a lot of horizontal movement. So much so in fact, that other four-seamers of similar velocity get five fewer inches of break. It is his go-to pitch against left-handed hitters, as he uses it to run away from them.
Due to hitters never knowing what’s coming from Nola on any given pitch, he has a good swing and miss profile with the pitch. In 2020, Nola’s four-seamer had a 12.1% swinging-strike rate and a 29.2% whiff rate. Those numbers have him firmly above the 75th percentile among starters. The pitch may have overperformed in 2020, but it was still expected to be a good pitch. Hitters averaged .135 against the pitch, with a .327 SLG, and a .222 wOBA. His expected numbers: .215 xBA, .439 xSLG, and a .284 xwOBA. This pitch has a lot to do with his hard-hit numbers, as its average exit velocity against was 91.1-mph. That is not a great number. Good thing he threw it five percent below his career average! Expect that trend to continue as long as he can continue to locate his curve and changeup.
Sinker or 2-Seam Fastball (20.7% usage)
Like most pitchers, Nola’s sinker (or two-seam fastball) is his least used pitch. However, unlike most, he uses it a little over 20% of the time. Similar to his four-seamer, this pitch gets a ton of horizontal movement. With the 17.4-inches of break, Nola’s sinker gets 95th percentile movement relative to his fellow starting pitchers. In 2020, he threw this pitch to right-handed hitters much more often than lefties. Typically sitting on the outside of the zone to righties, he often tries to sneak this back door on his same-handed counterparts. This is an atypical strategy, and the results show it probably isn’t an ideal attack.
As good as his four-seam fastball was in terms of swing and miss, his sinker is the exact opposite. Nola had a sub-two-percent swinging-strike rate and a 5.2% whiff rate. If an argument is to be made about Nola needing to develop a slider, one could immediately point to his sinker being an extremely dangerous option to have to rely on going forward.
Overcoming Issues: Hard Contact and Control
Everyone has their issues, and for Nola, the most glaring one is how much hard contact he has given up over the past two seasons. Prior to his down 2019 season, Nola was never known as a pitcher who gave up too much hard contact. In 2017 and 2018, he typically stayed well below MLB average. Then in 2019, there was a spike. That spike led to a ugly 39.5% hard-hit rate on the season. With little coincidence, 2019 was arguably the worst season of his career. However, in 2020, Nola’s hard-hit rate was nearly equal to his poor 2019 total, as the 38.1% hard-hit rate was once again below average. Even with the worries, Shane Bieber has proven that hard-hit rate is not an end-all-be-all metric, and Aaron Nola should be no different. While the hard-hit rate is concerning, it will not prevent Nola back from joining the elite tier.
What Nola doesn’t do like Bieber, and what could prevent him from being elite, is his control. Nola has never been a terrible control pitcher, as he has a career 7.4% walk rate. That number used to be much lower, but then 2019 happened. His walk rate jumped nearly three percent above his career average, as Nola struggled to locate his pitches.
Aaron Nola was much better in 2020, but the number was still elevated at eight-percent. With the increase in changeup usage, that was expected, as his in-zone percentage with the changeup was only 36.9-percent. All of his other pitches hovered between a 45-50% rate. Keeping the changeup out of the zone is fine, but he needs to locate his fastballs in three-ball counts. Of his 21 walks on the season, 47.6-percent of those walks came from his four-seamer and sinker.
Aaron Nola enjoyed himself a revitalized 2020 season following a disappointing 2019. That success came from a change in his pix mix, where he threw three different pitches a nearly identical amount of times (changeup, curveball, and four-seam fastball). By increasing his changeup over 10% above his career average, his strikeout rate and his swinging strike rate increased. For that reason, Nola’s 2020 profile looks to be 100-percent legit.
Even with a legit profile, that begs the question that this article presents, can Aaron Nola take that next step, and join the elite tier of Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, and Gerrit Cole? While we will need to wait and see to figure out, the educated prediction tells us no. At least not until he develops another pitch to his arsenal. In a day where sliders and cutters are reigning supreme, Nola doesn’t have one. The only pitch that Nola possesses that moves right-to-left is his curveball. If he had another option that ran right-to-left, Nola could produce even more dominant numbers. What it could most benefit is his hard-hit rate, as hitters wouldn’t sit on his fastballs as often.
Although it may be a bit nit-picky, with an 86 to 88-mph slider/cutter, Nola would be a nightmare for opposing hitters. As it stands now, his ceiling is capped to a borderline top 10 starter. That is nothing to be upset about, and Nola should absolutely be bought at his current price, but there is another level he could reach. He has already taken a step towards being elite by throwing his changeup more, but that fifth pitch would give him the ceiling of perhaps the best pitcher in baseball.
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