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2021 report card: Aaron Nola

Hello, prime bounceback candidate

MLB: SEP 23 Pirates at Phillies Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For years, I have been banging the “Aaron Nola is an ace” drum. It wasn’t outlandish. Nola had performed a below the radar ace for a few years, always included in those darkhorse Cy Young candidate pieces each year.

No longer can we call Nola an “ace” because he isn’t even the best pitcher on his own team anymore. I’m ready to admit that.

What I’m not ready to admit is that Nola is no longer a good starting pitcher anymore and that he should be dealt. In fact, were one able to buy stock in a player, Nola might be the best bet to bounce back among all starters in the game that disappointed.

2021 stats

180 23 IP, 1.13 WHIP, 29.8 K%, 5.2 BB%, 1.14 K/9, 4.63 ERA (3.37 FIP), 4.5 fWAR

The good

Nola starts in 2021 were tough to get through. We were so used to his being so very good more often than not that when he struggled last year, it was a little disorienting.

The issue is: was he bad or was he unlucky?

If we eliminate his 2020 season and just focus on his full seasons where he made 30+ starts, 2021 was actually really good for him.

Strikeout rate? Up, 29.8% vs. 26.9% in 2019
Walk rate? Down, 5.2% vs. 9.4% in 2019
Hard hit rate? Down, 37.2% vs. 39.5% in 2019

These are all good signs that Nola’s 2021 was a little on the fluky side and that he will probably bounce back. It’s tough to think this based on the Nola that we all watched last year, but given odds, I’d be willing to bet that Nola is closer to the 2019 form than the 2021 form.

The bad

Before we get into any off-the-field stuff, let’s go into the actual on-field performance of Nola.

If it felt like each start with him was an adventure, well, you aren’t alone. The September troubles came back with again this season (6.19 ERA in September this year), but there seemed to be something missing from him this season. If I asked you how many starts out of his 32 he made in 2021 went six innings or more, what would be your guess?

18? 20? 21?

Would 14 surprise you?

It was the fewest number of starts he’s made it past the sixth inning since 2016, quite frankly an astonishing number. It just looked like he was having trouble all year long, struggling to pitch well against even the bad teams. For some reason, he decided that adding a cutter was necessary pitch, abandoning it halfway through the season, then figuring he’d start throwing it once more.

He was really, really bad with runners in scoring position, allowing an OPS almost 200 points higher in these situations in 2021 as compared to 2019.

We could go on and on, but it just felt like nothing went right for him last year, yet all of his peripherals suggest he should be able to bounce back.

What he can’t bounce back from is his poor decision making in regards to getting the vaccine last year, costing his team some players and leaving them scrambling for roster fill-ins while in Boston. Something so easy as taking your teammates’ health into consideration is something you’d expect from one of the longest tenured players, but I guess that’s just too much to ask.

The future

It’s more than likely that the team has shopped him around the league. There is no harm in gauging other team’s interest in Nola and in seeing what kind of packages might be created to acquire his services. But let’s just put it out there what trading Aaron Nola would actually mean.

It would selling incredibly low on a pitcher who has shown the ability to be a legitimate Cy Young contender.

It would mean creating a hole in the team’s rotation that absolutely no one in the minor leagues can currently fill.

It would mean that by creating that hole, the team would have get back in a deal someone who is just as good as Nola to put into the rotation which would beg the question: why would the opposing team be trading that player in the first place?

It would mean that trading Nola would make the Phillies actively worse as an organization and dilute the current talent pool, something they cannot afford to do while they are in the midst of the primes of Harper, Wheeler and Realmuto.

Aaron Nola should not be traded to any team this offseason because it would make the Phillies a worse baseball team.

Final grade: C for performance, F for personal choices

The lack of leadership and putting the team at risk because of “personal choices” was a poor decision. One has to be more knowledgeable about what he is doing when he makes these kinds of decisions, how selfish and ridiculous they are.

Putting focus on the field, there is still a bit of unluckiness that surrounds Nola. He’s probably the player most likely to bounce back to his previously solid form based on the evidence at hand. If he regresses, the team has cheap options and easier decisions to make. It’s just not that likely he will regress. Could I be wrong? Of course, but the evidence I’ve seen makes me think he does bounce back in a pretty big way.