Aaron Nola's Stinker a Step Backward After Some Promising Recent Signs
Saturday night was Thanksgiving dinner for every Philly sports fan troll on social media, and Aaron Nola cooked the turkey.
It’s one of those nights where you almost just have to lock your digital doors and let those idiots parade around the streets of your neighborhood and litter it up. That’s because there’s no defending Nola after another 7-5 loss to the Brewers.
Even Nola knew it.
“Overall, I just stunk, really,” he told MLB.com after the game. “I was pretty bad tonight. A couple of innings blew up on me. I was missing a little bit around the strike zone and they were battling me when I was in the strike zone, too, especially with two strikes.”
He’s right. Every word he said is accurate. Putting guys away has been a problem for Nola this year, mostly because he hasn’t had fastball locating command at times this season, and when that gets away from him, he’s a much easier pitcher to hit, because you spit on the breaking stuff down and hunt the fastballs. If they’re on the corners, you foul them off (or get a cheap hit) and then you wait for another pitch in the happy zone. If either the fastball shows up there, or one of his curve balls hangs, you crush it, thus the influx of home runs.
And unlike what happened with Trea Turner, there’s no standing ovation coming to save Nola’s season (because that’s what saved it, right?) Nola is on his own, to figure this out, if at all possible.
Although it may not be.
Nola may just be what he is this season, and that’s something he has never been before – a wildly inconsistent starter:
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) September 3, 2023
Even as the cyberbullies are turning over your virtual grill and relieving themselves in your online flower bed as they vociferously spew anti-Philly sports hate, they have to admit that what Nola has been in 2023 is an unexpected cornucopia for them.
That’s because there is nothing about this season of Nola that has ever showed up with regularity in his past. And it’s likely you won’t see this again in his career in the future, until maybe his career is on its last legs.
In this season, it’s not been a roller coaster, but rather a different amusement park staple – the Himalaya.
It goes forward. It goes backward. There are a bunch of hills. And the ride operator, who also serves as a D.J., often asks things like, “Do you want to go faster?” Some riders do, others don’t.
When Nola is going good, the answer is always, “Yes!” When he’s pitching like he did Saturday, the answer is always, “No! Stop this damn thing! I want to get off!”
All the while, the song that’s playing on repeat is “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul.
Because with Nola in 2023, it’s always two steps forward and two steps back.
You can see the reasoning behind what’s happening to Nola when he’s not pitching well, but it’s the why that just doesn’t seem to have an answer.
The what, is simple.
If Nola throws a first pitch strike, opposing hitters in those plate appearances slash .204/.226/.316 for a woeful .542 OPS and an sOPS+ of just 75, meaning they are 25% worse than the league average against Nola if he throws a first pitch strike.
If Nola throws a first pitch ball however, opposing hitters then slash .239/.343/.521 for an .864 OPS and an sOPS+ of 107, or seven percent better than the league average in those counts.
That’s a disparity of 322 points. It’s crazy.
While all pitchers are better 0-1 than 1-0, the difference here is what sticks out.
It’s also why the Brewers started hacking at first pitches against Nola in the second inning. Because that’s where Nola has been even worse. He struck out the side in the first inning, wrapped around a 10-pitch walk to Carlos Santana in an at bat where you have to tip your cap to the veteran hitter who worked back from 0-2 to earn that walk. But, from that point forward, the Brewers were in attack mode early in the count.
When batters put the ball in play on the first pitch against Nola this season, they are hitting .380 with a .709 slugging percentage and a 1.089 OPS for a sOPS+ of 125, or 25% better than league average.
Part of that is Nola is always going to be punished a little more for his pitches in the zone that are put in play because he’s not a fireballer. And, to his credit, of the 703 batters he’s faced this season, only 81 times has the first pitch been put in play, but when it is, the result is usually akin to a steroid-era Barry Bonds at bat.
Nola talked about how the Brewers were successful against him with two strikes, and they were:
- The Brewers were 4-10 with two walks AFTER strike 2.
- The Brewers took 13 balls AFTER strike 2.
- The Brewers fouled off 11 pitches AFTER strike 2.
Some of that is a good two-strike approach at the plate – good discipline on the balls and spoiling good pitches on the fouls to live another pitch longer, but some of that is also on Nola to find a way to get those guys out – whether it’s with a strikeout pitch, or a pitch that induces weak contact. He sometimes gets in the mindset of nibbling too much once he’s ahead – perhaps because he doesn’t trust his fastball command at times – and when he does that, it tends to hurt him.
Still, there is a false narrative that Nola does this “all the time” with two strikes, and, well, he doesn’t.
Batters are slashing a paltry .153/.207/.224 with a .432 OPS and an sOPS+ of just 65, or 35% worse than league average, against Nola when he has two strikes on them in any count. Believe it or not, those numbers are actually BETTER than his career numbers with two strikes on a batter (.156/.207/.243 with a .451 OPS).
Another false narrative is that Nola only pitches well against bad teams:
Guy dominates shit teams and then when he needs to be a stopper he gives up 7 ers. Guy is so no an ace its painful
— Kevin Finnerty, Solar Energy Salesmen (@jride442) September 3, 2023
This is also not true this season. In fact, teams with weaker offenses have hit him better than teams with stronger offenses.
There are 12 teams who average more than 4.60 runs per game this season. (That 4.60 number is the league average). One of them is the Phillis. Nola has made 11 starts against those other 11 teams. He is 6-1 with a 4.48 ERA and a 1.097 WHIP.
Meanwhile, he has made 17 starts against teams scoring below the league average, and against those teams, Nola is 6-8 with a 4.60 ERA and a 1.186 WHIP.
Those 17 starts (which include Saturday against the Brewers), are what should concern fans more, not the other 11.
We’re not grasping for positives here about Nola. Yes, he has some good underlying numbers this season that tell you he’s not been as bad as you think, and pitchers, in general, are getting throttled this season under the new rules that baseball has put in place, so his numbers shouldn’t be expected to be as good as in the past. But his lack of consistency, his hide and seek fastball command, his propensity to give up home runs, and his sudden inability to provide length (five of his last seven starts have been less than six innings) are all things that he needs to personally control, and he hasn’t.
Nola will likely make four more starts in September. His focus should be purely of fixing the things he can control in preparation for October.
Once the calendar flips, the real fans will need to cross their fingers and hope the guy who has pitched well in some big matchups this season shows up and not the one who has wilted in a majority of his starts in the past six weeks.
Otherwise, the troll parade will rival the Mummers in length down our virtual streets for the next two months.
Other Observations from the loss
- The concern about facing Milwaukee is the Phillies would struggle to hit them. They haven’t. Especially the bullpen. Yeah they lost both games, but they put of 10 runs combined. No, they aren’t facing Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff, but the Phillies have put pressure on Milwaukee’s pitchers, including closer Devin Williams. That’s definitely a good sign.
- Kyle Schwarber continues to deliver out of the leadoff spot. Another leadoff homer. An RBI single in the ninth inning with two outs, getting red hot Trea Turner to the plate with the tying runs in scoring position. It’s his time of year for sure.
- Yeah, Turner struck out to end the game, where a single through the infield would have tied it, but he did have two more hits, including another home run.
- Turner tied Bobby Abreu’s franchise-record of hitting a home run in five straight games. He now has a 13-game hitting streak as well and he’s raised his batting average in the past 30 days from .235 to .260 and his OPS is now .757, the highest it’s been since April 21st.
- Turner also successfully stole third base. He’s now 25-for-25 stealing bases this season. The last player to successfully steal their first 25 attempts in a season was Tampa’s Carl Crawford, who was 30-for-30 in 2009. The last Phillie to go 25-for-25 was Jimmy Rollins in 2008.
- The most under-the-radar positive for the Phillies from this loss was the performance of Seranthony Dominguez in his one inning of work. Dominguez was throwing heat, touching 98 MPH on the radar gun. Dominguez faced three batters and struck them all out. If he can get back to being this on a more regular basis, that’s huge for the Phillies.