Aaron Nola finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award voting last year thanks to arguably the second-best season of his career. Nola’s 3.25 ERA was the second-lowest of his career. He pitched the second-most innings in baseball with 205, while having the highest fWAR (6.3) among big league pitchers. He also struck out a career-best 235 hitters and walked just 1.3 batters per nine innings — also a career-best. The right-hander’s 8.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio was also tops in the majors.
Those impressive stats, along with an okay postseason, meant that Nola was looking at a possible big payday during the offseason. After the Phillies exercised the veteran’s $16 million club option for the 2023 season in early November, it was believed the two sides would soon begin extension talks. And they did.
It was reported during the early days of Spring Training back in February that Nola and the Phillies were having discussions about a new contract. But as the regular season got closer, and it looked as though an agreement wasn’t close, the two sides decided to stop those talks and wait until the season was over to start negotiating again.
Not coming to terms on a new deal was a gamble for both sides. If Nola went out this year and put together another season worthy of Cy Young votes, then his price would only go up — meaning the Phillies would have to pay more to retain their 2014 first-round pick. However, if the right-hander didn’t put together a strong year, he would likely be putting himself in danger of not receiving as much money as he would have if he signed a new contract before the season started.
Nola currently finds himself in the second of those situations. In his 19 starts before the All-Star break, he has posted a 4.39 ERA — a below-league-average figure according to his 97 ERA+ — in 119 innings. He has 120 strikeouts, is walking 2.3 batters per nine innings — which is still a good number — and has a 1.109 WHIP with a 4.34 FIP.
It hasn’t been great for Nola this season. As of matter of fact, it’s been bad and even ugly at times. However, there has been some good.
Nola’s best quality has always been his durability. From 2018 to 2022, he made the most starts in the big leagues (143) while also pitching the most innings (871 2/3). This season, his ability to pitch every fifth day, while going deep into games, has still been on display.
Nola’s 119 innings so far are the second-most in the majors. Out of his 19 starts, he’s gone at least six innings in 16 of them. On top of that, just one of his starts has lasted less than five innings.
The one-time All-Star has made at least 32 starts in each full 162-game season since 2018. And he’s on pace to do that again this year.
In today’s game, plenty of pitchers don’t make 30-plus starts in a single season. So for Nola to be doing that on a year-in, year-out basis is rather impressive. Those numbers will also likely be used as an important bargaining chip when his representatives start negotiating a new deal for their client come this offseason.
Another good outcome for Nola so far this year has been his numbers while pitching at his home ballpark. In seven starts at Citizens Bank Park, the righty has a 3.40 ERA and 1.000 WHIP. He also has 9.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched at home. All of those numbers are better than his road splits.
This is important to note because the Phillies only have 30 road games left in 2023. Meanwhile, they’ll play 43 more home games. So Nola could make more starts where he’s seemingly more comfortable down the stretch. And that could result in much better results during the second half of the season.
There are a handful of numbers this year that are different for Nola than they’ve been in the past. The hard-hit rate against the veteran right-hander is up this year when compared to last. Hitters are also barreling his pitches at a higher rate than ever before. He is also getting fewer swings and misses on his pitches. Meanwhile, his first-pitch strike rate has dropped along with his strikeout percentage.
Last year, opponents posted a 31.6 percent hard-hit rate against Nola. So far this year, that number is up to 37.2 percent. Opponents also have a higher barrel rate against him. A year ago, batters had a 7.1 barrel percentage against Nola. That number has jumped to 8.8 percent this year — the highest of Nola’s career.
To add to those figures, Nola’s whiff rate in 2023 (25.5 percent) has dropped off a bit — it was 27.9 percent last year. If that number remains the same for the rest of the season, it would be the third-lowest whiff rate of Nola’s career.
First-pitch strikes and how often he strikes batters out have also decreased. Nola got ahead 0-1 70.1 percent of the time in 2022 and has done so just 64.9 percent of the time this season. As a result of that, coupled with a decreased whiff rate, Nola’s strikeout rate has fallen. Last year, his 29.1 percent strikeout rate fell into the 85th percentile among big league pitchers. His 24.9 strikeout percentage this year is currently in the 62nd percentile.
While those numbers aren’t the same as they were last year or in years prior, they’re still relatively good when compared to the rest of the league. But they aren’t what we’ve come to expect from Nola.
His current 97 ERA+ would be the third-worst of his career if it hovers around that mark for the remainder of the season. Last year, his ERA+ was 123. Not only is Nola’s ERA elevated, but so is his 4.34 FIP. If that number remains the same throughout the rest of the year, it would be the highest FIP of Nola’s career.
Last year, Nola gave up 19 home runs in 205 innings pitched. That was good enough for the second-lowest home runs-allowed-per-nine-innings-pitched of his career (0.83). This year, opponents have hit 21 home runs off him in 119 innings. That equates to 1.59 home runs per nine innings — the highest of his career.
He’s given up 12 solo homers, five two-run home runs, and four three-run jacks so far in 2023. That adds up to 34 runs allowed on home runs alone — he’s allowed 63 total. So 54 percent of the runs Nola has allowed to this point in the season have been as a result of a home run being hit.
Not only have home runs hurt the right-hander but so has pitching from the stretch. With runners on base, hitters are slashing .282/.337/.490 against Nola. And with runners in scoring position, they’re hitting .292/.340/.562. Compared to the .201/.244/.383 slash line opponents have against Nola this year with the bases empty, it’s clear he struggles from the stretch for some reason. This issue isn’t new, either.
Here are those same slash lines from the last two seasons:
|Runners in Scoring Position
As a result of those poor numbers, Nola is only stranding 67.6 percent of the runners that reach base against him this year. That’s currently the eighth-worst number in the majors.
Around the city of Philadelphia, there are a number of different opinions on Nola among fans. Some understand that he’s not the greatest pitcher in the world. But they also see the value he can bring to a rotation. Others think he is one of the more overrated players they’ve seen in a long time. But that opinion is a bit of an overreaction.
While Nola hasn’t been one of the better pitchers in baseball this year — which is what he was a year ago — he certainly hasn’t been one of the absolute-worst pitchers in the sport, either. Overall, he’s been okay. This isn’t what people expected from one of the Phillies co-aces — Zack Wheeler, who has had his fair share of struggles this year, being the other.
Nola has more than a handful of starts to go between the rest of July, August, and September to turn his season around. And the Phillies will certainly need him to pitch better down the stretch. They are currently a half-game out of the third wild card spot in the National League.
No matter what, though, barring anything crazy, Nola is going to sign a big contract this offseason. He has plenty of qualities organizations look for in a starting pitcher.
He just might not get as much money as some thought he would.
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