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Let’s end this debate now: Aaron Nola is an ace

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If you believe otherwise, you are wrong.

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

The other night, after Aaron Nola’s latest dominating performance, the Phillies put out a tweet acknowledging how well their young pitcher did.

There then came an interesting response to this tweet from a fan that elicited an immediate response, including one from the Phillies Twitter page itself:

Defining an ace in baseball and having the subsequent argument is something of a time honored tradition. We all sometimes fall into the category of “I know it when I see it” when it comes to saying whether or not a pitcher deserves the coveted label. In the past, the word “ace” was used for the names that have been engraved in the game’s history: W. Johnson, Maddux, Martinez, Gibson, Koufax, Clemens and on and on. These were obvious pitchers who were at the top of their profession for extended periods, dominating the competition like so very few have. In the modern game, fans usually try and figure out which pitcher on each team is the “ace” of the staff. Kershaw, Scherzer, Kluber, Sale, Verlander and others are the ones we have now that are deserving of the title, having earned it through their own period of excellence on the mound. It’s when we get to this gray area of pitchers, the ones that are really good, but still just don’t feel like they belong in the same class as those five just mentioned, that the argument becomes a little more vociferous. Philadelphia has already endured this argument once in the past few years when Cole Hamels was being peddled on the trading block and teams had to determine if they were acquiring an ace (they would have been) or a really good #2-3 starter (he was better than that). Now, we have Nola. Is he an ace?

Let’s settle this quesion once and for all: Aaron Nola is an ace in this game.

There is ample evidence that can prove this statement. To start, let’s figure out what an ace does. To help with this, I asked the staff for The Good Phight what they believe makes an ace. We’ve narrowed it down to these questions:

  • Is the pitcher consistently in the top 10-15 in categories that show pitcher excellence and domination (K%, BB%, HR%, etc.)?
  • Is the pitcher durable and able to counted on for 190+ innings?
  • Do the reports match the results, i.e. are what people saying matching what is actually happening? One of the more polarizing pitchers on the team, Vince Velasquez, has good stuff but often, the results are not there.

Others may have different questions they would ask, such as “Was he the starter on Opening Day?” since a lot of times, teams will begin the season with their best pitcher. However, Jose Urena started on Opening Day this year for the Marlins - is he an ace? That line of thinking is why I decided to eliminate Opening Day as a requirement for an ace. There are simply too many variables there to use that question as a barometer.

Now that we have a rough guideline, we can go through each part and see if Nola qualifies.

Is Nola in the top 10-15 of pitching categories?

Here is a handy dandy chart of some of the categories I believe represent how well a pitcher is doing on the season. (Stats as of Thursday)

Aaron Nola through 5/10

Category Amount MLB Rank
Category Amount MLB Rank
ERA 2.05 t-7th
DRA 2.20 t-12th
H/9 6.2 14th
WHIP 0.89 8th
K% 23.9% t-38th
BB% 5.6% t-19th
HR/9 0.34 t-4th
WPA 1.8 4th
bWAR 2.5 1st

Pretty sure that this meets the standards we are looking for. He is in the top 15 in virtually all the categories one can think of when it comes to pitcher effectiveness. Even if you wanted to count the contact he’s given up, he’s been great there as well.

Sure, the strikeout percentage is a little lower than others, but as we’ve already heard from Nola himself, he is looking to get softer contact earlier in the count, which enables him to pitch deeper into games. He’s confident in the defense behind him and uses them often.

These numbers are proof that Nola is indeed what we think of when we ponder what an ace is. Most people focus in on ERA at first because it’s so ingrained in us. Looking deeper, we see that he stacks up against the best in the game in everything a pitcher needs to do. Check this box down with an emphatic “yes”.

Is Nola durable enough to be counted on for 190+ innings?

This is the one that most of the non-believers will point to. Nola’s career high in innings was last year’s 168. He had an early season elbow issue that the team was understandable cautious with, which caused his innings total to be limited. However, once he started on the streak we saw him on last July, he averaged 6 13 innings every time out.

I would not disagree with people that kept reiterating this point, that he hasn’t shown the durability to this point, but again, he’s only 24 years old. He has plenty of time to show he is capable of handling a workload that is usually expected of a team’s ace. He’s well on his way to doing it this year.

Do the reports on Nola match his stat line?

Taken from the article on the Athletic the other day, it sure sounds like it. From Matt Gelb’s piece Wednesday morning:

“He was throwing all three pitches for strikes,” Andrew McCutchen said after the Phillies’ 4-2 win. “He would throw any pitch in any count.”

“He was throwing a couple of different fastballs,” Buster Posey said. “He commanded the changeup really well. And he dropped in breaking balls. He was pretty good tonight.”

“He was throwing any pitch at any time for strikes,” Bruce Bochy said. “He’s a good pitcher.”

Here is a team Nola just vanquished coming as close as an opponent can to gushing about the player. Even Evan Longoria was willing to give some praise.

“It’s tough to tip your hat, but he pitched a pretty good game. It’s tough for us as hitters to concede that. You’d like to think you’ll find ways to get around that. But he was around the zone enough. He wasn’t erratic. He didn’t throw a whole lot of balls way out of the zone. He was pretty efficient.”

It seems already apparent that the teams Nola is facing are already giving him his due. He’s doing what aces do - dominating team and causing them to acknowledge as much.

For some reason, there will continue to be the belief that Nola is not an ace. It’s understandable. He hasn’t receieved a single Cy Young vote yet because of the fact he hasn’t pitched enough in a season to garner any. That’s fine. As good as he is, I’m glad the team was cautious with him in seasons that didn’t truly matter anyway. Had they been in a pennant race, perhaps he would have pitched more, but we can’t worry about that now. Based on his last few performances on the mound, the question has been answered. Aaron Nola is an ace.