Heading into 2022, there was plenty of talk about Aaron Nola needing to have a bounce-back season. Breaking down his 2021 was rather interesting. While his ERA was 4.63, his xERA was 3.35, with a 3.37 xFIP and 3.26 SIERA. Those numbers tell us he was a much better pitcher than his 4.63 ERA told us he was.
His innings were down somewhat last year with 180.2. In 2018 and 2019, the last two 162-game seasons prior to 2021, Nola threw more than 200 innings each year. With his innings down and a higher ERA, 2021 was not the typical Aaron Nola season. This year has been different, though.
Through 166.2 innings this season, Nola’s ERA is 3.08, with a 2.73 xERA, 2.87 xFIP, and 2.84 SIERA. He has a career-best 1.19 BB/9 with 9.99 K/9. His barrel percentage is the same, 7.1%, and his home run rate, 2.5%, is 1 percentage point lower than last year.
The defense behind Nola is comparable to last season. In 2021, the Phillies were last in DRS and 28th in OAA. This year, they are 27th in DRS and 28th in OAA. His ground ball, fly ball, and line drive rates are similar to last season, too. So, what is the difference for Aaron Nola in 2022?
Differences in 2022
One difference between this year and last year is the hard-hit percentage against Nola. This year, his 30.7% hard-hit rate is down nearly seven points from last season’s 37.5%. In 2021, 45.4% of the balls put in play off of Nola’s 4-seam fastball were considered hard hits, and this season it’s down to 33.6%.
The biggest difference for Nola this year has been the location of his two best pitches; his 4-seam fastball and curveball. He is using his fastball on both sides of the plate this season, which he did not do in 2021. Nola is also not hanging his curveball over the middle of the plate, which was an issue last year.
He is using his curveball outside of the strike zone a lot more this year. Last season, Nola’s curveball landed in the strike zone 51.3% of the time, while this season, it has been in the zone 39.7% of the time when thrown. The O-Swing% on his curveball has increased this season. In 2021, the O-Swing% against Nola’s curve was 42.1%, and it currently sits at 49.6%.
In 2021, Nola was spotting his fastball on the outer half of the plate to righties and middle-in to lefties most of the time:
However, in 2022, Nola is using his fastball on both sides of the plate:
Nola’s curveball hung out over the plate a lot in 2021:
This season, Nola’s curveball has not leaked out over the plate nearly as much:
With the change in pitch locations, hitters aren’t having as much success as they were last season against either pitch. In 2021, the xBA against Nola’s 4-seamer was .257 and the xSLG was .522. This season, the xBA against the same pitch is .192 with a .350 xSLG.
The difference in the xBA and xSLG for Nola’s curveball in 2021 and 2022 isn’t as drastic, but they are still better this year. Hitters had a .189 xBA and .313 xSLG in 2021 compared to a .186 xBA and .280 xSLG in 2022 against Nola’s curve.
Even though the numbers told us 2021 should have been better for Nola, the fact that he had an ERA north of 4.50 told us that something wasn’t right. Nola has always been a pitcher who relies on location and movement rather than raw stuff with velocity.
This season, he has been able to locate his 4-seamer and curveball much better. This has resulted in hitters not being able to square up either of those pitches as much, especially the fastball.
While Nola had a confusing 2021, this season has been one of the best in all of Major League Baseball. Through August 26th, Nola has the 2nd fewest walks, 4th most strikeouts, is 2nd in innings pitched, 3rd in xERA, 4th in xFIP, and 3rd in SIERA.
Aaron Nola is back to being the pitcher we saw prior to 2021. He is able to use his fastball on both sides of the plate, and he is getting hitters to swing at more curveballs outside of the strike zone. With everyone talking about Zack Wheeler being the Phillies’ workhorse, Aaron Nola is back to being a workhorse of his own.
Follow us @Diamond_Digest for more throughout the season!
Featured photo: Twitter / @Phillies