When you’re a team on pace for your worst season in 56 years, you look for any signs of hope, no matter how small. A power spike for a developing slugger. Even an encouraging performance from a A-baller who might be years away from making the Show.
In the Phillies’ case, one ray of hope is Aaron Nola. The seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, Nola projected as a potential future ace, when he made his major league debut barely a year after getting drafted. He then proceeded to offer a lesson in the vagaries of statistics, and how factors largely beyond a pitcher’s control can greatly affect his fortunes.
In his rookie campaign of 2015, Nola twirled 77 ⅔ innings, posting a 3.59 ERA that was 7% better than league average on a park-adjusted basis. But those results were deceiving: Nola had been extraordinarily stingy with runners on base, with 80.4% of the runners he put on getting left out on the pond—the third-highest mark among all National League starting pitchers with as many innings pitched.
At first glance, his 2016 season seemed to go much worse. For one thing, a sprained UCL blew up his season, ultimately knocking him out for the year in late July. But the biggest factor ballooning his ERA to an ugly 4.78 ERA that year wasn’t health, so much as it was luck. From a skills standpoint Nola thrived, punching out an eye-popping 121 batters while walking just 29 in 111 innings. Unfortunately, his good fortune with runners on base completely deserted him: No NL starter stranded a lower percentage of runners last year than did Nola (60.4%).
Modern pitching analysis tells us that strand rate is a stat largely driven by luck, with fringe pitchers sometimes posting sky-high rates, even as some stars mysteriously struggle with men on base. The good news for Nola is that his luck has equalized this season: 76.8% of the runners he’s put on haven't come around to score, a rate that’s above average but also within the normal range. That’s allowed his core skills to shine, with Nola pumping up his fastball velocity, striking out more than a batter an inning for the second straight season, and limiting hitters’ ability to pull pitches better than he ever had before.
Nola’s past five starts have highlighted his impressive potential: 35 ⅓ innings, 41 strikeouts, a 1.78 ERA, and an opponents’ batting line of .186/.250/.318, with 66% of the pitches he’s thrown going for strikes.
Small sample? Sure. A badly needed silver lining in an awful Phillies season that’s tested the patience of even the biggest advocates of rebuilding? Also yes.