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Aaron Nola is Ready to Make the Leap

Every season, a mid-tier starting pitcher jumps into the top 10 for good. Aaron Nola is the best bet to be that pitcher in 2018.

Certain player types emerge every February and March as fantasy baseball owners prepare for their drafts and auctions. The specific players who fill those roles change, but the roles themselves carry over from year to year. Identifying the players who fit each archetype before you sit down to build your team can help you find hidden value and avoid impending busts. We’ll take a look at the 10 most identifiable, enduring archetypes in our Player Profile series. In this edition, we consider The Breakout Ace: Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies

The starting pitchers ranked between about 14th and about 25th always comprise one of the most interesting groups of players at any position every season. They aren’t quite top-tier pitchers, but they’re all off the board within the first 75 to 80 picks of a typical draft. They aren’t elite, but some of them clearly have that potential, and all of them look like, at worst, pitchers that can slot at or near the top of fantasy rotations.

Every season, at least one pitcher from this group breaks out, and places himself among the top-10 players at his position for at least the next few seasons. In 2015, it was Jake Arrieta and Jacob deGrom. In 2016, Noah Syndergaard jumped from the high teens to an easy SP1, and even though he made just seven starts due to injury last season, he’s right back among heady company this year. It’s still too early to say who last year’s climber will be, but Carlos Carrasco looks like a strong early candidate. It’s not necessarily a guarantee, but fantasy owners would be wise to bet on one of those early-middle round pitchers making the leap this season. With that in mind, I’ll be going after Aaron Nola in all my drafts and auctions.

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Nola made clear strides in 2017, his second full year in the majors. He made 27 starts and tossed 168 innings, pitching to a 3.54 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 3.27 FIP with 184 strikeouts. His walk rate ticked up from 2016, but was still a manageable 7.1%, tied with Max Scherzer, deGrom and Ervin Santana for 24th best among qualified starters. He offset that gain with a larger one, by percentage points, in strikeout rate, jumping to 26.6%. That was good enough for 14th in the majors, sandwiched between Zack Greinke and Jose Quintana.

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Despite the undeniably strong year, there was a lingering feeling at the end of the season that Nola left some production on the table. He was, quite simply, anywhere between average and bad for most of the first three months of the year. First, he missed a month from late April through late May with a lower back strain, an injury he suffered in his third start of the season, in which he allowed four runs in five innings. It took him some time to get going once he returned, and he went into his second-to-last start of June with a 4.76 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 47 strikeouts in 51 innings.

Nola’s season turned around that June afternoon in Philadelphia. He tossed 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out nine. Over his next 10 starts, he amassed a 1.71 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 78 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings. He hit a bit of a speed bump in late August and early September, but his post-back injury numbers still looked like what we’d expect from a starter on the cusp of greatness: Nola made 18 starts from late June through the end of the season, totaling a 3.00 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 137 strikeouts against 33 walks in 117 innings.

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The underlying numbers suggest that greatness is coming. Nola induced whiffs on 10.8% of his pitches, better than Justin Verlander and Carlos Martinez. He controlled damage on balls in play, as well, racking up a 21.6% soft-hit rate that was eighth-best in the league, just ahead of Stephen Strasburg, Jon Lester and deGrom. He kept the ball in the yard, with HR/FB and HR/9 ratios that were both comfortably better than league average. In fact, his 0.96 HR/9 was better than all but 13 qualified starters. To recap, in two seasons, Nola has established a high strikeout floor while teasing elite whiff ability; has been stingy with free passes; has placed among the top-10 starting pitchers in creating soft contact; and, in an era of booming power numbers, has been one of the harder pitchers to take deep.

Nola is now entering his age-25 season. He’s a former first-round pick (seventh overall) who flew through the minors, making it from High-A to the bigs in barely more than a calendar year. He has enjoyed two seasons of success, both of which have hinted at a breakout but were also interrupted by injury. He is the 17th starting pitcher off the board in a typical draft, right in the same range as Arrieta and deGrom in 2015, Syndergaard in 2016, and Carrasco last year. Nola is ready to etch his name next to those four. He is 2018’s Breakout Ace.