For my money, the most fun and exciting game of the 2015 Phillies season came on the evening of Tuesday, July 21st. I was in Ocean City, NJ for the week with my family and, instead of participating in a riveting game of mini-golf that I was sure to lose,* I sat at home with my laptop on my lap and watched Aaron Nola make his major league debut for the Phillies.
*Side note: Does anyone know of a mini-golf place that serves alcohol in the Philadelphia area? If so, hit me up. If not, I will gladly accept your funding to open one. Wouldn't this be a good idea? Golf, as I understand it, is nothing more than an excuse to socialize and drink with friends. Why can't mini-golf be the same? Together we--me and my rich investory--will make millions. Don't miss out!
The buzz surrounding that game was unlike any around a Phillies game since their run of dominance from 2007-2011. For just one night, Phillies Twitter came back to life. Instead of the rotating cast of internet folk who provided Twitter commentary when they had absolutely nothing better to do than watch the 2015 Phillies, seemingly everyone who is anyone in the Phillies online milieu was tuned in and excited for the game. For one night, watching the Phillies was something all the cool kids were doing.
Not even 14 months after being drafted by the Phillies out of LSU with the 7th overall pick, Nola looked very much like a pitcher who belonged in the middle, or even toward the top of, a major league rotation. In that debut, Nola went 6 innings and only gave up one run on a dinger by Rays starter Nate Karns. He featured the entirety of his four-pitch arsenal, mixing a sinker, curveball, and changeup with his fastball. The changeup in particular, the same pitch A-Rod raved about during Spring Training, had the Rays in fits as they swung and missed on 4 of the 15 changeups he threw that night. All told, Nola struck out 6 Rays against only one walk in his debut.
Although Nola's performance stood on its own as a reason to be optimistic about the future, we also were witness to the birth of the latest addition to the Hall of Intense Parents of Philadelphia Athletes, A.J. Nola (blue polo):
We haven't seen a Phillies parent with personality since Ed and Linda Rolen parents took their RV road-tripping talents to St. Louis. It's a fine line sports parents toe between being fun and supportive of their child and meddling in the affairs of the organization (see Lindros, Eric). Let's raise a glass to many years of charismatic, un-meddling A.J. Nola.
Overall in 2015, Aaron Nola was about what everyone expected him to be. Over 77.2 innings, Nola had a 3.59 ERA (111 ERA+) along with a 21.4 K% and a 6.0 BB%, both of which are also a decent bit better than league average for starting pitchers. He is already a mid-rotation starter at the major league level, and many prospect folk see the possibility of a #2 starter in there.
On an aesthetic level, Nola comes out of the Cliff Lee mold where pin-point control elevates merely above-average stuff. As fans who experience athletic achievement vicariously through the athletes for whom we cheer, watching Nola pitch allows us to delude ourselves that, had things broken slightly differently, we too could be major league pitchers. You can't do that watching Aroldis Chapman pitch; you can with Aaron Nola and that is what makes him fun.
The Phillies shut Aaron Nola down for the last week of the season after he threw 187 innings across three levels. Barring injury, Nola will start 2016 in the Phillies rotation and will be free from the constraints of an innings limit. Without Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee around, he will likely be the de facto ace of the staff, which shouldn't mean anything, but will undoubtedly raise expectations unnecessarily high for Nola.
It is important that we don't get swept away in those unfair expectations. If Nola merely repeats his 2015 performance over 180-200 innings each year for the next 8-10 years, the Phillies will have an incredibly valuable and compelling pitcher to anchor the top-to-middle portion of their rotation. That is not an unreasonable expectation. One does not have to be an ace to be a key part of a good rotation.
Aaron Nola may not be flashy or spectacular, but he doesn't need to be. Enjoy the understated very goodness out of Nola that you will likely receive for the next near-decade. And, moreover, enjoy the resurrection of Phillies Twitter the Aaron Nola era may usher in.