Aaron Nola starts Game 2 of the Wild Card series against the Miami Marlins tonight. It will be a chance at some redemption for Nola, as he could put his miserable regular season behind him and deliver in the postseason. Financially, he could boost his chances of landing a big free agent contract here or elsewhere significantly if he performs to his capability.
It’s an opponent Nola is quite familiar with, as he’s made a total of 23 starts against Miami in his career. He has a lifetime record of 5-10 with an ERA of 3.58 against the Marlins, and actually has better numbers in Miami (2.69 ERA) as opposed to home at Citizen’s Bank Park (3.68 ERA) where he will face them tonight.
However, Nola has struggled mightily against Miami in 2023. He’s 0-2 and has allowed 12 earned runs in 16 innings (6.75 ERA) across three starts.
Here are his lines in those three starts:
4/11: 5.2 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 6 Ks, 1 HR, 100 pitches
7/9: 6 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 6 Ks, 3 HRs, 91 pitches
9/9: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 6 Ks, 1 HR, 84 pitches
In a year in which he allowed the six most home runs in the league, Nola’s given up more long balls to the Marlins than anyone else with 5.
How have they done it?
The Miami lineup as a whole actually doesn’t hit for much power (19th in SLG at .405) despite employing Jorge Soler and his 36 HRs, but they do put the ball in play. They have the 8th best strikeout percentage (21.3%), fourth worst walk percentage (7.1%), and boast four hitters that are over the league average in contact percentage, with two within 3% of the average.
It’s clear to see now why Nola has struggled against them this season. They directly lineup with some of his biggest weaknesses in 2023. They don’t swing and miss a ton, they put the ball in play, and they can foul off pitches consistently to run deep counts. Nola has struggled with runners on all season (.816 OPS) and Miami has the fourth highest team average (.259) of any team in baseball. More balls in play means increased chances for runners on and for the defense to make a mistake.
In all three of his starts against Miami, Nola gave up a large amount of hits, at least one home run, and didn’t walk anyone. That means he was mostly in or around the strike zone, but still wasn’t able to put hitters away. He usually attacks the zone with his fastball and sinker, relying on their movement to keep hitters off of them, and then looks to get hitters to swing and miss with his curveball and changeup. Nola’s curveball has the lowest whiff percentage of his career (33.3%), which means hitters aren’t expanding the zone on it as much as they have in the past. It’s causing him to have to come back into the zone with his other pitches, exactly what the Marlins want him to do.
It's a tired adage, but for Nola to succeed against the Marlins, he must throw quality strikes and stay ahead in the count This is a team that has the ability to put bat to ball on almost anything, led by the best contact hitter in the league in Luis Arraez. The only way you’re going to get them to swing and miss is to get them behind in the count where they are forced to expand. Nola cannot afford to run the count full where the Miami hitters can go into protect mode. They will drive his pitch count up and increase the chances of him leaving a mistake up in the zone.
Heed the first sign of danger.
We’ve all seen how Nola has pitched well at times this season, only for the wheels to fall off and spiral into a disastrous inning. If he starts to show the early signs of losing control of the game, Rob Thomson must not hesitate to give him a quick hook. The Phillies have a deep bullpen, something that couldn’t really be said about last year’s postseason bullpen. Like Matt Winkelman illustrates in this piece from earlier in the week, the Phillies will be able to deploy either Jeff Hoffman or Matt Strahm to put out a fire Nola starts and still have good options to bridge the game to Craig Kimbrel and Jose Alvarado in the eighth and ninth. They do not need to get six strong innings from Nola. Take what he gives you and get him out before things snowball.
Will any of this matter?
Of course, this is one big over-analysis of a single start in a three-game series. Maybe Nola struggles again. Maybe the Marlins swing and miss a little more because they’re affected by the atmosphere. After all, this is an offense that scored the fifth fewest runs this year. They aren’t a juggernaut. Nola and the Phillies pitching staff should be able to keep them off the board enough for their own offense to score runs, with the caveat of anything can happen in a three-game series. But for the Phillies to have their best chance at winning this series, Nola needs to conquer the Marlins.