With his team having lost-four straight games and rapidly falling behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East race, Aaron Nola took the mound on Thursday afternoon bearing three heavy burdens:
1) Help his team rebound from a devastating walk-off loss
2) Cool off a red-hot Washington lineup
3) Outduel arguably the game’s best pitcher in Max Scherzer
After eight brilliant innings of shutout baseball, Nola accomplished all of three of those things in a masterful performance that revitalized his Cy Young and MVP candidacy. I believe this was the precise moment that he put all of baseball on notice:
Aaron Nola. My goodness. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/mzepYmLqKe
— BWanksCB (@BWCrossingBroad) August 23, 2018
It should be said that Nola doesn’t need to win a Cy Young or MVP award to validate what he has done this season. According to Baseball Reference, Nola’s 8.9 WAR for Pitchers is the highest of any Phillies pitcher since Steve Carlton’s 10.2 WAR during the 1980 season. That is something peak Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, or Cliff Lee did not manage in any of their remarkable seasons with the Phillies. There’s no doubt that Nola has had a special season, and he has unquestionably become one of the game’s elite talents. After Thursday’s game, Gabe Kapler spoke about Nola’s dependability and consistency:
Here’s Gabe Kapler on Aaron Nola and the Cy Young Award: pic.twitter.com/I1PuiD6XTN
— BWanksCB (@BWCrossingBroad) August 23, 2018
He’s right. Nola has allowed two runs or less in 21 of his 26 starts this season, and he hasn’t allowed more than four runs in any start. He’s been cash over the last five months, but where does it leave him in the MVP and Cy Young races?
There are probably a few different directions we could take this as we try to determine who has been the National League’s best pitcher and who has been its most valuable player, so let’s first tackle who has been the best pitcher to this point.
A quick look at ERA puts Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom ahead of both Nola and Washington’s Max Scherzer. Scherzer and Nola sport an identical 2.13 ERA, while deGrom has been even better with a 1.71 mark. Inside modern baseball circles, ERA is no longer the primary tool used to evaluate a pitcher’s effectiveness, but it still carries a great deal of weight with the voters who determine these awards. From a historical standpoint, deGrom’s eight wins leave him well short of the necessary total needed (typically, 15 to 20 will do), so that could be a limiting factor. Felix Hernandez won the 2010 American League Cy Young with only 13 wins, the least ever by a pitcher to win the award in a non-strike shortened season, but his numbers were overwhelmingly superior that year. Even with deGrom’s lack of wins, it’s hard to overlook his 2.07 FIP and 216 ERA+, both of which are NL bests. Given deGrom’s superiority in these categories, it is more than enough to keep him relevant in the Cy Young conversation.
Meanwhile, Scherzer and Nola are the National League’s No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers, respectively, in each of the following categories: Wins (16 to 15), H/9 (5.75 to 6.34), and WHIP (0.89 to 0.97). While Nola is among the league’s best in K/BB ratio, strikeouts, FIP, and Adjusted Pitching Wins, Scherzer is also the leader in each of those categories. There’s also this:
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) August 24, 2018
Well, shit. Given this, it’s pretty hard to make a case for Nola as the National League’s Cy Young, right? Maybe. But he has a chance.
While the Mets and Nationals have each struggled defensively, it’s worth noting the Phillies’ -100 defensive runs saved this season ranks dead-last among all 30 teams. In fact, they don’t have a single position on the diamond that has graded out as a net positive in that metric. Remarkably, Nola hasn’t allowed an unearned run this season, but think about the potential outs he has lost over the course of this season thanks to a miserable team-wide defensive effort. For example:
Herrera had a terrible baserunning error, then GROSSLY misplays this ball in Center leading to the Red Sox tying it up to 1-1. Rough game for the Phillies CF pic.twitter.com/5hYUUA5YIa
— 🇨🇦Butch DFS🏀 (@DFSBBallGuy) July 31, 2018
The most compelling statistical case supporting Nola is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Using Baseball Reference’s WAR for Pitchers metric, his 8.9 WAR is better than both that of Scherzer (8.0) and deGrom (7.5), but there are even roadblocks to using WAR because different WAR metrics value players differently. For instance, Scherzer leads Nola in FanGraph’s WAR, and when taking into account Baseball Reference’s WAR for all players (a slightly different measurement than WAR for Pitchers), Nola’s 8.6 trails only Scherzer’s 8.8, meaning he’s been the National League’s second-most valuable player.
Yeah, I know. F’n Scherzer again. But there is a way Nola can outlast his peers down the stretch. It should go without saying that a lot can change over the remainder of this season in which each of these guys should take the hill another six to seven times. For Nola to prevail, his numbers and league rankings will have to at least hold steady or continue to improve, but if he can push the 20-win mark, while also pushing the Phillies into the postseason (a huge if), his national prominence and odds to win the award will each increase.
While he admittedly currently faces an uphill battle given Scherzer’s season to this point, there is an extremely compelling case for Nola as the National League’s MVP, again, if the Phillies can reach the postseason.
Of course, the MVP typically goes to position players. Players like Matt Carpenter, Javier Baez, Nola Arenado, and Freddie Freeman have each had excellent seasons, but none these players have clearly distinguished themselves as the front-runner here in late August. That’s where Nola’s staggering superiority in WAR over the National League’s position players comes into play.
Also, keep in mind there is precedent here. Justin Verlander won the 2011 AL MVP and Clayton Kershaw won the NL’s award in 2014. Unlike Nola, Verlander and Kershaw led their leagues in several traditional statistical categories in those seasons, but Nola already has more WAR than both. While the same obstacles mentioned regarding Nola’s Cy Young candidacy are applicable here, this is where the Phillies’ position in the standings comes into play. Verlander’s 2011 Tigers and Kershaw’s 2014 Dodgers each finished in first place, which I think will be required of the 2018 Phillies if Nola is to emerge. If they can get there, that means Nola will have helped erase a three-game deficit over the season’s final 34 games to catch Atlanta. Meanwhile, the 64-65 Nationals and 57-71 Mets don’t figure to play meaningful baseball down the stretch.
Consider just how important Nola has been to the Phillies’ unexpected success this season. They are 19-7 when he pitches, but only 50-52 when he doesn’t. Let’s say the Phillies replaced Nola with another Jake Arrieta. He’s been a solid to an above average pitcher this season, but the Phillies are only 12-13 in his 25 starts. If the Phillies played only .500 baseball in Nola’s 26 starts, they would currently trail the Braves by nine games. In other words, he’s keeping this team afloat. And that’s the case for Nola. He’s been one of the National League’s top two or three valuable players this season, and he plays for a contending team. Ultimately, Nola probably trails Scherzer in the Cy Young race and faces an uphill battle to knock off a position player for the MVP, but there is a path:
1) The Phillies need to stop playing bad baseball to give Nola the big stage in September.
2) Nola must continue dominate as he did on Thursday.
I have no concern about the latter. Will the Phillies help him? That I’m not so sure about.