Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola was selected during the 2014 MLB draft with the seventh overall pick. Since that moment, the expectations have been high for the LSU-product.
Nola made his MLB debut on July 21, 2015, the first Phillies pitcher to debut within a season of being drafted since 1989. He started 13 games that season and pitched to a 3.59 ERA. Expectations continued to rise for the young righty, excitement for what he might become was palpable.
However, it was Nola's 2018 season that turned heads and titled him "ace." Through 33 starts Nola notched a 2.37 ERA with a 0.975 WHIP and 224 strikeouts in 212.1 innings pitched. That performance was good enough to land him firmly in the conversation for the Cy Young award.
Yet, since that vaunted 2018 season, Nola hasn't returned to that same form. He saw a decline in performance during 2019, which could be attributed to his heavy workload in 2018. That season he pitched 44 more innings than any year before.
Nola's 2020 season, albeit shortened, provided some promise he was back on track. However, Nola's most recent season in 2021 has given some pause about whether or not he truly is a frontline starter, much less an ace.
Nola's 4.63 ERA in 2021 is shocking and not in a positive way. However, his underlying numbers show that he wasn't as bad as his ERA suggested. In fact, The Athletic's Eno Sarris did a deep dive into Nola's numbers and found that the starting pitcher's left-on-base rate and homer rate were higher than his career numbers.
In a sense, Nola was unlucky in 2021. Failing to strand as many runners and allowing more home runs usually is a recipe for the opposing team to score more runs. One only needs to look at his start against the San Diego Padres where he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning of their August 21 competition. That night he was just two strikes away from finishing a complete game only to give up a game-tying two-run home run to Jake Cronenworth.
That evening embodied Nola's season.
But, as Sarris also points out, Nola's control, strikeout rate, and execution of his pitches all bode well for a bounce back season. Nola has proven time and time again he has the talent to be elite.
All he needs now is to strand runners and eliminate the home run ball as much as possible. If Nola can do that, then he could once again return to the Cy Young conversation.
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