Aaron Nola was by no means “bad” in 2019.
Most of the time, a 12-7 record, a 3.87 ERA, a 10.19 K/9 and 3.4 fWAR season would be something to feel good about. But for Nola, those numbers were a disappointment because they came on the heels of a year in which the former LSU standout utterly dominated baseball.
In 2018, Nola finished third in the NL Cy Young voting behind winner Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer after 17-6, 2.37 ERA season in which he put up a 5.4 fWAR in 33 starts over 212.1 innings. He out-dueled Scherzer in back-to-back starts that September and had a career high swing-and-miss percentage of 12.4%. Coming off that type of a season raised expectations for the former first round pick, and Nola couldn’t quite meet them. He gave up a ton of home runs early and never seemed to get his feet under him in 2019.
Perhaps it was because of the ball (the stitches were closer to the ball which made them harder to grip and increased MLB’s home run rate dramatically last year). Perhaps it was the now-ousted pitching coach and manager. Perhaps it was because of some bad luck. Perhaps Nola just flat-out wasn’t as good. Whatever the reason, his season was more in line with what you expect from a No. 3 starter, not a staff ace.
Happily, Aaron Nola appears to be back to his 2018 self.
After twirling eight innings of dominant baseball against the Washington Nationals last night in which he gave up just two hits and three walks with nine strikeouts, Nola’s ERA is a sparkling 2.45, 8th-best among qualified NL starters. He’s whiffing a career-high 11.66 batters per nine innings, walking just 2.45 per nine, and is inducing a personal-best 51.5% ground ball rate this season.
He’s a legitimate Cy Young candidate once again, but how legit? Where does he rank among the rest of the National League contenders?
Aaron Nola NL Pitching Ranks
Baseball Reference’s WAR calculations (which use ERA instead of FIP) like Nola a bit more, giving him a 2.2 bWAR that ranks 2nd only to Atlanta’s Max Fried. His fWAR of 1.3 is tied for 5th with Miami’s Pablo Lopez for 5th best in the NL, behind Sonny Gray’s 1.4, and three pitchers: Fried, Jacob deGrom, and Yu Darivsh, all of whom are at 1.8. He’s also second in WHIP behind Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, and third in opponents’ batting average allowed, at .169.
His teammate, Zack Wheeler, shouldn’t be left out of the conversation either, by the way. Wheeler’s 1.8 bWAR is 5th in the NL and his 2.58 ERA is just behind Nola’s among NL leaders, 9th-best in the league. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his first six starts, and has allowed two earned runs or fewer in five of them. While he’s not striking many guys out right now, which accounts for a 3.33 FIP that leaves him with a 1.0 fWAR that is tied for 13th, he’s allowed the lowest amount of hard-hit contact this year at 30.5%, according to Fangraphs.
There is no apparent front-runner for NL Cy Young, unlike in the American League where Cleveland’s Shane Bieber is going to run away with it. But Nola (and Wheeler) should certainly be in the mix with Fried, Darvish, Bauer, and deGrom over the final month of the season.