Coming off of consecutive seasons in which he struck out more than a quarter of the batters he faced, it might be concerning to see Aaron Nola’s strikeout rates sitting where they currently sit. This is a guy who looked like he was building into something resembling more of a right-handed powerhouse, setting his sights on an 11 K/9 or 30 K% or something equally ridiculous and overpowering. But not so fast! Instead, Nola’s K% has dropped, and precipitously: In 2017, it was 26.6%, and through this April, it’s at 19.1%. In this season’s context, that’s akin to a drop from the likes of Stephen Strasburg to those of Ian Kennedy.
In some cases, that’d be reason for curiosity bordering on concern. Yet, here I sit, completely unbothered by it in the wake of another strong start Friday night against the Braves. Why? Because even though Nola hasn’t generated the strikeout totals we’ve become accustomed to seeing yet, he’s traded them off for bad swings, bad contact, and indicators that the strikeouts will probably be back en masse.
Let’s start with the recently resurgent changeup, which Nola threw a career-high-matching 28 times Friday. He’s thrown 104 of them on the year now, and given up exactly five hits.
The above TruMedia heatmaps represent Nola’s changeup locations and SLG allowed, respectively. He’s locating it exceptionally well, and hitters aren’t doing squat with it. The spots are in line with how he’s normally located the pitch, but he’s hung fewer over the heart of the plate and, as a result, been victimized less. That’s usually a pretty good recipe for success, and the contact rates bear that out so far.
|2015||Phillies||1.47||20.0 %||47.6 %||32.4 %||8.2 %||15.1 %||44.5 %||33.2 %||22.3 %||19.2 %||52.0 %||28.8 %|
|2016||Phillies||2.23||20.0 %||55.2 %||24.8 %||3.8 %||12.8 %||42.5 %||36.1 %||21.4 %||23.2 %||48.0 %||28.7 %|
|2017||Phillies||1.6||19.1 %||49.8 %||31.1 %||6.3 %||12.7 %||40.2 %||36.0 %||23.8 %||21.6 %||48.7 %||29.7 %|
|2018||Phillies||1.59||15.4 %||51.9 %||32.7 %||14.7 %||5.9 %||37.0 %||42.6 %||20.4 %||23.1 %||58.3 %||18.5 %|
Without a noticeable drop in groundball rate, it’d be difficult to see, on the surface, exactly what’s gone on. But you’ll notice in the table above an immense drop in hard-hit balls and line drives. Sure, hitters are putting a few more balls in play instead of striking out, but those balls in play are limp and frequently turning into short fly outs.
What’s also helped Nola is a big jump in aggression; both his and opposing hitters’.
Strikes early, strikes often. Not only is Nola getting ahead of hitters more frequently, he’s still throwing quality strikes even when ahead in the count. Take, for example, one of Nola’s three strikeouts from last night. This one, against Kurt Suzuki, is a great example of a quality strike: Ahead 0-2 after a curveball (looking) and changeup (swinging), Nola doubles up. Check out the sweeping movement on this changeup.
Brutal stuff. Suzuki, despite seeing the same pitch twice, is way out in front and over the top. Nola hits his spot with precision. Inning over.
As an aside, anyone else notice a right-handed Cole Hamels resemblance with the leg kick? No? Just me? Anyway.
One more example. Check out the numbers in two-strike counts (3-2 excepted).
0-2, 1-2, 2-2
With 68 of 145 total pitches hitting the zone, we’re left with 77 out-of-zone. Of those 77, we’re told hitters have swung at and chased 36, or roughly half. Hitters are swinging at bad pitches, trying to protect the plate against pitches that have no easy defense. For now, those pitches are resulting in some more balls in play than usual; in time, I have a good feeling, they’ll start turning into strikeouts again.
I’m not sure I’d call this a reinvention or a wholesale change in approach, necessarily, but it’s clear that Nola has turned his aggression up a notch and found an additional weapon in his changeup. This combination of quality pitching and racing out in front of hitters is an excellent combination, and Nola has set himself up to rack up more and more quality starts using this formula.