Perhaps the only person who is not impressed with Aaron Nola is Aaron Nola.
Thirteen months after the Phillies made Nola the No. 7 pick in the 2014 MLB draft out of LSU, his Triple A Lehigh Valley manager called the young righthander into his office. “We don’t need you here anymore,” Dave Brundage said, before breaking into a smile. “You’re going to Philadelphia!”
Nola nodded, then went to the gym. Back in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., his parents, having been told by Aaron's agent that the promotion was coming, waited patiently for their son to call. One hour turned into two turned into three, and finally they called him. No answer. When he eventually got back to them, his opening line was, “Oh, did you hear?”
Four days later, Nola made his debut in Philadelphia against the Tampa Bay Rays. His dad, A.J., wiped away tears while his mother, Stacie, was unable to eat from the nerves. Nola gave up just one run over six innings while striking out six, but he was the hard-luck loser in a 1-0 final. Afterward, Nola greeted the 27 assembled fiends and family who have made the trip to Citizen’s Bank Park by saying, “Thanks for coming. Where are we eating?”
Nola’s non-plussed attitude is nothing new. Even those closest to him struggle to recall unusual qualities or interesting anecdotes when asked about him.
“He’s kind of boring,” says Stacie.
“The most emotion I’ve ever seen from him was a fist pump,” admits A.J.
“This is a hard assignment!” says his older brother, Austin.
“You ain’t gonna find nothing on him,” says Philadelphia catcher Cameron Rupp.
After a Twitter chat in January with the team's official account, in which Nola shed little light on himself, a Phillies fa blog joked that the event had been “an attempt to find his personality. The state of that project remains incomplete.” (Questions ranged from his favorite ballpark food—“Classic ballpark hot dog”—to how he would describe Phillies fans—“Solid,” with no elaboration.)
Aaron laughs. “I’m just low-key,” he explains.
He’s always been that way. His family theorizes that growing up in Baton Rouge as little brother to type-A Austin, now 26 and the Marlins’ Triple A shortstop, taught him to leave the stress to his sibling. Austin spends hours before games planning his approach at the plate and getting himself mentally prepared. Aaron takes a nap. When Brady Domangue, who would become Nola’s best friend, got to LSU before the 2014 season, he was taken aback.
“My first impression was, Him?” he says of the mellow righthander with the goofy grin who had just led the SEC in strikeouts with 122 and finished top-three in the voting for the National Pitcher of the Year award. “He acts like he just got off the beach. But his simplicity is what makes him successful.”
And it’s what may make Nola, who turned 23 last Friday, the perfect candidate to lead Philadelphia’s rebuilding effort.
“If you’re living uptight,” Nola likes to say, “You ain’t living right.”
Nola has had little reason to be uptight since that debut last July. He went 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA in his rookie season and is 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA this year, while ranking among the top 10 in the National League in K/BB ratio (5.667, third), Fielding Independent Pitching (2.73, sixth), WHIP (0.987, seventh) and strikeouts (85, eighth).
Although Nola insists Philadelphia will be in the playoff hunt, the team has lost 13 of its last 17 and is now four games below .500 after a 24-17 start. With a major league roster consisting mostly of aging former stars, kids still getting used to charter flights and backup-types in starting roles, the Phillies are a year away at best. Third baseman Maikel Franco, 23, centerfielder Odubel Herrera, 24, and righthander Vince Velasquez, 23, are already producing at the major league level, and to be sure, more help is not far off: The team’s rebuilding effort has produced one of the best farm systems in baseball, with seven of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, including stud 21-year-old shortstop J.P. Crawford, who will likely be in the majors at some point this year.
“He doesn’t make any excuses,” says pitching coach Bob McClure. “It’s all about, Well, we lost 3–2, but I could’ve been better. And [I know] it’s not eyewash because I’ll see him go out there the next time and not make the same mistakes.”
McClure and manager Pete Mackanin both speak fondly of an episode last September, when the Phillies faced the Nationals. With the bases loaded and the score tied 2-2 in the top of the fifth, Nola tried to sneak an inside fastball by Jayson Werth, a pitch that had resulted in outs twice before that same day. Werth deposited it in the leftfield stands.
Afterward, catcher Carlos Ruiz explained to Nola that major league hitters will often guess right, and that pitchers need to learn what the hitter is looking for.
"I can’t wait to be in that situation again," Nola said.
It came two weeks later. This time Nola struck out Werth on three pitches, all down and away.
Almost the only way to get Nola riled up is to tell him he’s bad at something athletic. Most of the time his friends start in on him about Ping-Pong or hunting or fishing, because it’s hard to talk too much smack to a major leaguer, but they do their best. Austin got the baseball team at LSU, where they overlapped for one year, to use his childhood nickname for his little brother—Karen Michelle (a play on Aaron Michael)—and makes sure to loudly announce the results every time he beats his younger brother in anything.
Domangue sticks with more targeted ribbing. “You look like a newborn colt running around out there!” he told Aaron after seeing video of his first minor league hit. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Nola is not amused by either of them, but he can’t remember the last time he raised his voice. “Maybe in high school?” he offers. The extent of his retorts to his brother is usually “Gosh, Austin!”
Nola's pitching repertoire is similarly tame. His fastball averages around 90 mph, so he relies on movement, pinpoint command, an excellent curveball and a changeup he spent the off-season working on. Ever since he got shelled as a college freshman trying to throw flat 95-mph four-seamers, he’s focused on pitching rather than throwing.
“To me, command comes through controlling your emotions,” says McClure. “I’ve had a few of ‘em [who can do that], but not many. Zack Greinke could, Joakim Soria could, but it’s hard.”
Nola’s reaction is the same whether he struck the last batter out or gave up a home run. He restricts demonstrations of how fired up he is to the intensity with which he places his glove on the bench between innings.
“I try not to get too up or too down,” he says. “We play a lot of games. You can only control what you can control. If I have a bad start, I try to make the next four days as good as I can. I’m a big process guy. The results will come.”
For now, the Phillies have to trust the process too. If Nola keeps pitching the way he has and the rest of the team falls into place around him as planned, things could get very interesting.