How can Aaron Nola Return to Form?

All season long, Aaron Nola looked tired. He looked tired at his best, at his worst, and for all of the disappointing mediocrity in between. Six months spent searching for the elusive IT – his command, his confidence – had drained him. As the season progressed, each start became an opportunity to prove that he still was Aaron Nola of 2018, who finished 3rd in the Cy Young award voting. It didn’t help that his battery mate, Zach Wheeler had taken the mantle of ace, with the best season of his career.

Unfortunately for Nola, each outing cast a longer shadow over 2018’s aura. In 32 chances, he recorded a quality start – at least six innings pitched and 3 or fewer runs allowed – only 11 times. 18 of his starts didn’t last 6 innings, 7 of which ended before the 5th. Over 180.2 innings, Nola allowed a team high 26 home runs and posted a 4.63 ERA – the 2nd highest of his career.

In late August, prior to the most important month of the season, Nola voiced his displeasure with his performance thus far to Matt Gelb of The Athletic, "I want to throw all of my other starts away, pretty much."

September offered Nola little solace, however, and he went 2-2 over 6 starts with a 6.19 ERA. Nola’s poor season wasn't the only thing to blame for the Phillies failing to reach the postseason, but it sure didn’t help. Had the Phillies experienced the Nola of yesteryear – under whom the Phillies were 20-11 in games he started in 2018 – their September outcome may have been very different. Instead, the former ace lost his crown, leaving the organization to wonder: will Aaron Nola ever return to form?

It’s a question that must loom large in the organization’s mind this off-season – it’s significance increased by the timeline of fellow starter Zach Eflin’s recovery from season ending knee surgery. Eflin, who until July 16th, had served as an invaluable 3rd starter – racking up 105.2 innings pitched over 18 starts with a 4.17 ERA. Without Eflin, the team was forced to scramble – picking up starter Kyle Gibson at the trade deadline and promoting Ranger Suarez into the starting rotation.

Although Suarez shattered expectations – 3-2 over 12 starts, 1.51 ERA in 65.2 innings – and Gibson was adequate – 182 IP on the year, 69 IP over 12 starts (4-6) with a 5.09 ERA in Philadelphia – the team was still forced into a quasi-bullpen game every 5th day in Eflin’s absence. Factor in the lack of a reliable 5th starter – a 6.26 ERA over 202.1 innings from failed experiments Vince Velasquez, Chase Anderson, and Matt Moore – and suddenly, the Phillies’ inability to eat innings became very real.

And so, in the timeline of Eflin’s recovery, the attention shifts back to Nola. The oft-injured Eflin is slated to return 6-8 months from his September surgery – Spring Training at the earliest and mid-May at the latest. Hopefully.

This makes Nola’s return to form all the more important. Perhaps the most consequential component of Nola’s off year was his inability to pitch deep into games – his 180.2 innings were 2nd to Wheeler’s workhorse 213.1, down from 202.1 in 2019 and 212.1 in 2018. Instead of gobbling up innings alongside Wheeler, Nola’s early exits became a strain on a bullpen that was already stretched thin. Late-inning relievers, such as Hector Neris and Connor Brogdon, would have to work double time to support Nola – not ideal for a bullpen that led the league in blown saves.

If the Phillies hope to be competitive in 2022, they’ll need Nola to routinely pitch into the 6th inning and beyond – a task that was mundane for him in 2017(6.2 IP/GS), 2018 (6.4IP/GS), and 2019 (6.0 IP/GS). Eflin’s effectiveness upon his return remains unknown, as is Ranger Suarez’s ability to face an opposing lineup multiple times around, much less handle a full season’s workload. Gibson has logged high innings in the past, but his track record is inconsistent and has struggled as a ground ball pitcher in Philadelphia. Thus, the onus is placed on Nola, the man with more starts (111) than any other pitcher in baseball since 2018, to find what he had been searching for all season long.

So how can Nola find himself, to regain a grip on his abilities? After all, his efforts this past season weren't completely in vain – he tallied up 223 strikeouts, 5th in the National League, and posted a 5.72 strikeout/walk ratio, the best of his career. His 4.63 ERA belied the fact that he had one of the league’s worst defensives behind him – opponents had a .309 BAIP compared to their .254 BAIP in 2018. When paired down to Fielding Independent Pitching – the stat that only accounts for runs directly within the pitcher’s control – his era dropped to 3.37, 10th best in the National League.

What hurt Nola, despite his high number of strikeouts, was what happened when he got to a two-strike count. Nola gave up 82-two strike hits, tied for the most in baseball. 12 of the 26 home runs he surrendered came on two-strike counts. To make matters worse, his BAA was just .186 on two-strike counts, but on balls in play that number jumped to .338. It’s a cruel twist of fate for Nola, who reached two strikes in 61.3% of the plate appearances against him.

Nola’s struggles in two-strike counts isn’t an anomaly – it’s a sign of a larger shift in his approach and mechanics that tells the story of his lost season.

Over the past few years, Nola has drastically changed how he attacks hitters. Once a ground ball pitcher, his tendencies in flyball rate and ground ball rate have completely flip flopped from his 2018 season to 2021. Just as his 2021 ground ball rate dropped nearly 10% (49.8% in 2018 - 40.8% in 2021), so too did his fly ball rate spike (17.5% in 2018 - 27% in 2021).

This shift has coincided with a change in both pitch selection and location – Nola eschewed his sinker for much of the season in favor of his 4-seam fastball. Instead of pitching for groundouts, Nola was pitching for swings and misses – he pounded the strike zone.

Despite not having a power fastball, Nola turned himself into the pitcher’s equivalent of a high-risk, high-reward power hitter – fastballs elevated in the strike zone put him at risk of allowing home runs for the reward of swing and miss strikeouts. This risky approach was a double edged sword – he increased his strikeouts and cutdown on walks – in exchange for giving up the long ball and the occasional two-strike base hit.

Unfortunately for Nola, this tendency is likely what led to his inconsistency and early exits. While Nola racked up the strikeouts in 2021, he wasn’t exactly fooling hitters like in years past. Opposing batters were looking at less strikes – (29.4% in 2018) – (27.2% in 2021) and fouling off more (26% in 2018) – (28.6% in 2021). Opposing batters also struck out looking more in 2018 (29.5%) in comparison to 2021 (25.1%). Additionally, Nola also had less 3-pitch strikeouts in 2021 than he did in 2018. Instead of setting up hitters, causing them to whiff at a curveball or freeze on a fastball on the corner, Nola gambled for swings and misses.

The issue with swings, however, is that they’ll inevitably lead to contact – and in Nola’s case, hard contact. Nola’s swing and miss approach caused his HR/FB ratio to jump – from 7.5% in 2018 to 11.0% in 2021. This also led to a dip in his grounded into double play rate – it dropped from 13% in 2018 to just 9% in 2021. Both of these stats were evidenced in his struggles with runners in scoring position – often the reasoning behind his early exits.

So why would Nola change his approach from his best year in 2018 to his worst in 2021? Although he’s had flashes of brilliance, he has declined incrementally over the past 3 seasons. What gives?

Well, his faith, or rather, lack of it in his pitches. His change from ground ball to flyball pitcher may in fact, be wholly incidental – unless of course, it’s because of his reluctance to rely on the Phillies’ shoddy infield. The rise in fly balls and two-strike hits, may be in large part, due to an error in his mechanics.

Nola struggled with his command in 2021 and his pitches didn’t have their usual snap – since 2018, the vertical drop of his sinker (25.2 in – 23.6in) and his 4-seam fastball (18.9in - 17.6in) have both dropped. In turn, their horizontal break has increased, leading to pitches meant for the corners of the strike zone to "leak" out over the middle of the plate. Nola has cited a need to "get on top of the ball" to regain the downward motion of his pitches – his lack of command likely a reason for his reliance on his 4-seam fastball, which batters hit .261 off of in 2021.

If Nola is unable to establish his fastball, he’s forced to rely on his curveball – allowing opposing hitters to sit on the slow breaking ball. His curve has also lost a couple inches of break - evidenced by the 10 home runs hit off it and an increase on its percentage in the zone with two strikes: up from 47.3% in 2018 – 51.6% in 2021.

For Nola to return to form and give the Phillies the boost they need to compete in 2022, he must look inwardly to his past. The roadmap for his success is not all that different from what he did in 2021, it just involves a slight tweaking of his mechanics to retain his command. If he accomplishes that, then he’ll remind both Philadelphia and himself of just how good he can be.