The GM meetings have come and gone. They provided us with some insight into what front offices are looking to add to their respective big-league rosters this offseason. One area a large number of clubs are looking to address is starting pitching.
This winter’s starting pitching market isn’t deep. It does, however, include its fair share of talented arms. Outside of Shohei Ohtani, whose two-way talents won’t be on full display until 2025, the top two starters on the free-agent market, arguably, are Blake Snell and Aaron Nola.
Both Snell and Nola were extended — and subsequently rejected — qualifying offers. That means any team that signs them will be docked some combination of 2024 draft picks and international signing money. Those penalties aren’t going to keep teams away, though.
Snell and Nola will each ink multi-year, nine-figure deals. Both contracts could very well be in the $200 million range, depending on how their respective markets develop.
Teams looking to add a top-of-the-rotation arm for 2024 and beyond could be in the market for both starters, signing whichever one they can come to a deal with first. That being the case, doing a breakdown comparing the former first-round picks seems appropriate.
After being drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the 2011 draft, Snell made his major league debut in 2016. Nola, drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round three years later, debuted in 2015. Here’s where some of their career numbers are heading into next season:
|Blake Snell||191||992 2/3||127|
Nola did make his debut a season earlier than Snell but has still been more durable. However, Snell’s run prevention throughout his career has been better. We’ll touch on both of those subjects in greater detail later on.
Here are some more career numbers for both pitchers:
|Pitcher||Strikeout Percentage||Walk Percentage||FIP||bWAR|
Both pitchers are rather similar in terms of their strong strikeout rates and fielding independent pitching. Nola, though, walks fewer hitters and has been more valuable in terms of wins above replacement, likely because of his heavier workload.
Now, here’s a look at their career per-inning and per-nine numbers:
All of these numbers are rather comparable. It is important to note, however, that Nola has struggled with giving up the long ball at times in his career. He allowed a career-high 1.5 per-nine in 2023. Snell’s career-high of 1.8 HR/9 was in 2020 when he made just 11 starts.
Finally, here is how hitters have performed against each pitcher throughout their careers:
|Pitcher||Batting Average||On-Base Percentage||Slugging Percentage||OPS+|
Again, these numbers are very similar.
All in all, both pitchers have been able to put together strong, almost identical career numbers through 2023.
Highs and Lows
Both Snell and Nola have had a pair of really good years during their careers, along with a few other seasons that haven’t been as good.
Snell’s best two years were 2018 and 2023. He took home the AL Cy Young Award in ’18 after winning 21 games for the Rays. The left-hander made 31 starts five years ago, pitching a career-high 180 2/3 innings while posting a career-best 217 ERA+, 2.95 FIP, and 31.6% strikeout rate. Opponents had a career-low .554 OPS against the southpaw, too.
The second-best season of his eight-year career came this year. For the San Diego Padres, Snell made a career-high 32 starts, while finishing with 180 innings, a major-league-best 182 ERA+, 3.44 FIP, and 31.5% strikeout rate. Hitters put together a .579 OPS against Snell this year, the second-lowest of his big-league career. The 30-year-old’s ’23 season has earned him his second career Cy Young Award.
Outside of ’18 and ’23, Snell has been a lesser pitcher. He didn’t eclipse the 130-inning mark once outside of those two previously mentioned seasons and wasn’t as sharp in his run prevention. Here’s a look at his numbers, excluding the best two years of his career:
|Blake Snell||Starts||Innings||Opponent OPS||ERA+||FIP|
|2016 – 2017||43||218 1/3||.716||108||3.87|
|2019 – 2022||85||413 2/3||.681||104||3.44|
Those aren’t horrible numbers, but they are way off of those from ’18 and this past season. Clearly, there’s a question about what version of Snell you’ll get. For the most part, he’s been limited in the innings he provides and hasn’t been a true, consistent No. 1 starter.
As for Nola, his top two years were in ’18 and ’22. He finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting five years ago and fourth last year. Back in ’18, he started 33 games, finishing with a career-high 212 1/3 innings and career-high 173 ERA+. The right-hander also had a 3.01 FIP that year, while striking out 27% of the batters he faced and holding them to a career-best .570 OPS.
Last year, Nola pitched 205 innings, the second-highest single-season total of his career, and posted a 123 ERA+, the third-best of his career. He also posted a career-best 2.58 FIP and 29.1% punch-out rate. Hitters had a .603 OPS versus Nola in ’22.
Not including ’18 and ’22, Nola hasn’t been horrible. He’s been a league-average pitcher, at worst, while also pitching every fifth day over the last six seasons. Here are some of his numbers without including the top two campaigns of his career:
|Aaron Nola||Starts||Innings||Opponent’s OPS||ERA+||FIP|
|2015 – 2017||60||356 2/3||.695||106||3.38|
|2019 – 2021||78||454 1/3||.689||106||3.64|
Like Snell, Nola’s numbers outside of his two best years aren’t nearly as good, but are serviceable. While Nola’s finished more innings on a regular basis, the overall performance for both pitchers is pretty comparable when they aren’t at their best.
Also, for the sake of “what have you done lately?”, Snell’s ERA+ over the last three years is 125 across 436 2/3 innings. Nola’s is 102 across 579 1/3.
Since we’ve looked at the career ERA+ for both pitchers and have shown their ERA+ numbers in certain stretches, it’s important to look at it on a year-to-year basis in a search for overall consistency.
|Year||Blake Snell ERA+||Aaron Nola ERA+|
Snell has been up and down through the years, while Nola has been a bit more consistent, especially in the middle of his career to this point.
Overall, neither starter has shown they can be a consistent ace. It does seem, however, that Snell’s upside is higher than Nola’s.
When it comes to their injury histories, Snell and Nola are opposites of one another. Snell has been on the injured list plenty of times since he debuted, while Nola has spent very little time on the sidelines.
In terms of injuries, Snell has dealt with a number of them in his career. In ’18, he spent time on the injured list with left shoulder fatigue. Then, in ’19, he suffered a fractured right toe that placed him on the injured list again. He had loose bodies in his left elbow later in that year, too, causing him to miss time. The left-hander was placed on the IL three times in ’21, first with an illness, then with gastroenteritis, and finally with a left adductor groin strain. He re-aggravated that adductor injury early in ’22 and was activated from the IL in late May. Snell hasn’t missed time because of injury since.
Nola, on the other hand, has only been placed on the injured list because of an injury twice. In late ’16, he suffered a right elbow strain that ended his season. The following April, he missed some time with a lower back strain. In the middle of ’21, he was placed on the IL again, but that was COVID-related.
Snell has only made 30-plus starts twice in his career. He’s pitched at least 180 innings twice. Outside of those two years, his third-highest inning total in a single season is 129 1/3. A heavy workload has never been a part of his profile. Nola’s profile has always included a heavy workload. In the last five 162-game seasons, the righty has made 32-plus starts in all of them, tossing at least 200 innings three times.
In today’s game, a lot of starters don’t pitch a ton of innings. But having someone who can do such a thing is important, especially atop a rotation. It helps limit the number of innings a bullpen has to endure over the course of the six-month grind known as the regular season. Snell’s injury history and lack of inning-rich seasons is certainly a red flag. How big of a red flag will be determined by each individual team bidding for his services. Nola’s lack of injury history, plus his start and innings totals since ’18 are a green flag.
That’s not to say the script won’t flip moving forward for either pitcher. Maybe Snell stays healthy for most of his early-30’s and starts 30-plus games each year for the first half of his new contract. It’s possible Nola’s body fatigues from all the innings he’s pitched over the years, stopping him from being the innings-eater he’s been. Maybe those things happen. It’s also possible they don’t.
Contract and 2024 Projections
MLB Trade Rumors released the site’s contract predictions for their top-50 free agents this offseason. They predict Snell’s contract will be a seven-year, $200 million deal and Nola’s to be a six-year, $150 million deal.
Also, Fangraphs recently released the Steamer’s projections for next season. Here’s what they look like for Snell and Nola:
In terms of run prevention, Snell and Nola are projected to be the same. While Snell is likely going to continue striking out a ton of hitters, he’s also going to continue to walk more hitters than the average pitcher. Meanwhile, both are projected to make 30-plus starts, but Nola is likely to almost reach the 200-inning mark once again.
Looking at these numbers, neither pitcher is that more valuable than the other, except for their respective innings totals.
These numbers are what they are: projections. Snell and Nola could both perform better or worse than these numbers suggest next season.
Signing a free-agent pitcher to a long-term contract is always going to come with risk. Paying them based on past performance, betting they’ll continue at that rate moving forward, is not great. Predicting how a player will age is far from an exact science. It’s nearly impossible.
Snell and Nola are going to get paid regardless. It may just come down to what an organization prefers.
The left-handed Snell has just two 30-start seasons under his belt, but he took home a Cy Young Award each time. Between those two years are alright ones that lack consistent innings and availability. The potential is there. More often than not, though, it hasn’t been reached.
For Nola, he’s been one of the most durable starters in the game. He’s second in innings pitched since the start of ’18 and is one of four pitchers to have logged 1,000-plus innings in that time frame. He, too, has struggled with consistency. But instead of innings totals and performance like Snell, it’s just been inconsistent performance. The right-hander has had two Cy Young-worthy campaigns with a handful of mid-rotation-like ones between. Nola’s pitched like an ace before. But, his year-to-year carryover of that performance has been almost nonexistent, especially over the last three seasons.
Again, it may just come down to what an organization prefers when choosing which pitcher to sign. Snell has ace-like upside without a durable track record. Nola is an innings-eater who is a league-average pitcher at worst.
Nola might be the lower risk of the two. Snell might be the biggest reward. It’ll be a while until we’ll know for sure.