If you guessed Aaron Nola, you would be correct. Don’t feel bad if you missed it, as no one I have asked has been able to guess correctly, but yes Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies is our current leader in the clubhouse among pitchers in WAR with a WAR of 2.9, 0.4 better than Luis Severino and Chris Sale who tie for second at 2.5 (And god do I love that, Yankees-Red Sox is going to be INCREDIBLE this year.) So what’s been the key to Nola’s success? He hasn’t been overpowering guys as he ranks outside the top 30 in both K/9 and BABIP and is instead dominating with his control. His BB/9 is under 2 for the first time in his career, and he’s also letting up home runs at a lower clip than ever before. He’s always been able to limit fly balls, with a 29% fly ball rate over his career and about 27% this year which ranks in the top ten league-wide. He’s been able to pair this with his lowest FB/HR rate at 7.1% to keep balls in the ballpark and runs off the scoreboard.
So why is Nola finally turning into the success that he is right now? It’s not like he hasn’t had success before, Philly fans will attest that he’s been one of their stronger pitchers on a team that has been bound to make a run at some point. Instead, he’s switched up his approach and is throwing his change-up at a career-high rate of 21.9% up over six percent from his previous high of 15.6% last year. Not only is he throwing it more, but he’s throwing it better, with vertical drop among the top ten in the league and a wCH/C (a stat that measures the runs saved by a certain pitch when a pitcher throw it 100 times) of 2.43, by far the highest of career. He’s pairing this with a devastating two-seamer that ranks in the top five in horizontal movement and cuts in hard on a right-handed. He’s throwing a fastball at a 2.28 wFB/C, which ranks in the top 10 league-wide. This is a stark contrast from his first three years where he relied heavily on his curveball, throwing it 43% in 2016 and 25% last year. He had success with it too, as a wCB/C of 2.26 ranked 3rd among all pitchers last. But now he’s putting all the pieces together en route to a 1.99 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP.
His best performance so far was a 12 strikeout game against the Giants. Watch the video here. He uses all three pitches well and has the Giants hitter flustered at the plate. After the game, Andrew McCutchen said of Nola, “He was throwing all three pitches for strikes, he would throw any pitch in any count.” The Giants are no sister of the poor either, with proven veterans they are a middle of the pack team hitting wise, and Nola shut them down.
It will be interesting to see if Nola will be able to keep up this pace as the season goes on, the Phillies currently sit a half game behind the Braves for first place in the NL East. It is no doubt that his success will be directly related to the Phillies’ as they could use him with Arrieta to be a solid 1-2 punch. They’ve also seen the emergence of 25-year old Nick Pivetta, who just struck out 11 against the Orioles. The Braves are a young team who are overachieving, and the Nationals are starting to bounce back after a tough start, leaving the NL East to be one of the most interesting divisions in baseball this year.
And I forgot to mention the best part: Aaron Nola turns 25 on June 4th. Get to know his name because he could be here for awhile.