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What should we expect from Aaron Nola this year?

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Will the Phillies’ ace return to his 2018 form?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

One of the big storylines during spring training is the starting rotation and the lack of sure things running throughout it.

Can Zack Wheeler become an elite-level starter? Can Jake Arrieta live up to his $25 million AAV price tag? Will new pitching coach Bryan Price help youngsters Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez unlock a level as-of-yet unachieved? Will Spencer Howard play a role later in the season and is there a darkhorse candidate to take the fifth spot that no one is talking about?

But the staff ace isn’t without some question marks, too. In 2018, Nola finished third in the National League Cy Young voting behind Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer as he posted a 2.37 ERA and 3.01 FIP with a 5.4 fWAR and an insane 8.8 bWAR. It was a tremendous season and announced Nola’s arrival as a true staff ace.

However, some chinks in the armor began to show even that September. Heading into his September 2 start against the Cubs at Citizens Bank Park, Nola had a minuscule 2.10 ERA and had given up just eight home runs through the first five months of the season. Perhaps that was an unsustainable stretch, because in his last five starts, he gave up nine homers and allowed a 3.72 ERA. Opponents posted a .729 OPS.

Most dismissed it as late-season fatigue, and perhaps that was a part of it. But when the 2019 season started, he got off to a slow start and one season seemed to run into the next. In his first six starts, he posted a 5.68 ERA and gave up seven dingers. His ‘19 season would be up-and-down after that, finally finishing with a 3.87 ERA and 4.03 FIP, with a still respectable but not awesome 3.4 fWAR and 3.9 bWAR.

So what should we expect from Nola this year? There are a few things to consider.

First, no one knows what the baseball is going to be like in 2020. Last year’s ball was slicker and with laces closer to the ball, which some pitchers said made it more difficult to throw. For a pitcher who relies on pinpoint control and movement, a harder-to-grip baseball could have been a major factor. Second, based on some of the things he’s said this spring about his new pitching coach Bryan Price, it appears Nola was not comfortable with his predecessor Chris Young.

“He knows how to run things,” Nola said last week about Price, “and he’s not going to change how the game is played (quote via Scott Lauber, Philadelphia Inquirer).”

Nola has preached how Price has encouraged pitchers to focus on their strengths and to simplify things, a different approach from last year’s directive to throw high fastballs and curveballs that drop out of the strike zone.

“I’m just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes,” Nola said. “I don’t want to throw too hard too early in the count (quote via Jim Salisbury via NBC Sports Philadelphia).”

The change in approach was reflected in some of his peripherals last year. Nola noted after his first spring start Sunday, in which he pitched two scoreless innings, that he didn’t get ahead of hitters enough last year. His 62.3% first-pitch strike percentage was 34th among 58 qualified MLB starters in ‘19, quite a bit lower than his 69.4% first-strike rate in 2018, which was second-best in baseball. And while his strikeouts per nine jumped from 9.49 K/9 to 10.19, his walk rate ballooned from 2.46 BB/9 to 3.56, 8th-highest in the Majors. And because more batters got on base, his strikeout rate was virtually unchanged last year (27.0% to 26.9%) despite more of his outs coming via the whiff. And like many pitchers , he gave up way more homers (27) than he had in any previous season (18, in 2017).

Nola may never repeat that 2018 season. It was magical. He’s a special pitcher, but for many hurlers, that kind of year comes along once in a career. It’s more likely Nola will be something in between the guy who almost won the Cy Young and the guy who seemed to struggle to keep his head above water last year.

Steamer is projecting a 3.71 ERA, 3.72 FIP and 4.1 fWAR from Nola in 2020, with ZiPS’ fWAR projections the same but with a 3.57 ERA and a 3.72 FIP. A 4.1 fWAR would certainly be an improvement over last year more and than a full run worse than ‘18. That’s probably a fair middle ground, but are those the numbers of an ace? Last year, a 4.1 fWAR would have ranked tied for 21st among all MLB starters.

If Aaron Nola is a top-20 pitcher in baseball, the Phils would almost certainly take it. We’ll see if Nola leaves that number in the dust with a new pitching coach and, hopefully, a new ball.

On the latest edition of Hittin’ Season, Liz Roscher, Justin Klugh and I chatted about what we’re expecting from Nola, as well as Nick Pivetta’s potential to rebound in 2020, the new-look Phanatic (ugh) and Madison Bumgarner’s rodeo side hustle.