There are so many adjectives one could choose from to sum up Aaron Nola’s 2023 season that it’s hard to choose which is most apt. I could spend this time trying to spin narratives, dig deeply into the data and try to tell give you the ol’ “well, actually....” when it comes to his season, but it’s near impossible. There are positives to find for sure, but it just wasn’t that good of a season for Nola.
At least, as good as we’ve come to expect.
2023 stats: 32 G/GS, 193 2⁄3 IP, 105 R (96 ER), 5.7 BB%, 25.5 K%, 4.46 ERA (4.03 FIP), 3.9 fWAR
How do you feel about innings from your starters?
Depending on how you value a starting pitcher being able to give his team 6+ innings each time he takes the mound, it could influence some of what you think was good about Nola’s season. We no longer live in the age where pitcher make 35+ starts, throw 200+ innings with regularity and rarely, if ever, miss a start. Yet that is what Nola does. Sure he didn’t reach the 200 inning peak this season, but he was one good start away from doing so. He hasn’t missed a start in what feels like forever. This year was the third most starts he made in which he went at least six innings (22) in his career. There is value in that and something a lot of teams would (and almost did) pay money for.
In the playoffs, he delivered some very good performances for the team that depends on its starters giving them good performances. Had he not struggled in game six of the NLCS, the Phillies might very well have been playing for a ring, but alas, the struggles that showed up this season reared their ugly head in that final start of 2023.
So, we can’t really sugarcoat the fact that Nola’s season wasn’t as good as what we’ve come to expect of him.
Some of the bad, you can see at the top. His walk rate was the highest it’s been in a while, his strikeout rate was its lowest since 2016, his home run rate was the highest of his career (1.49 HR/9) and his ERA was the third worst he’s put up since he debuted in 2015.
Was it the pitch clock? The discussion surrounding that was so wide that it truly can’t be ignored. Remember, of the 391 pitchers that Baseball Savant measured in 2022, Nola was the 26th slowest worker by tempo in the game with runners on base. Asking him to suddenly change everything about how he worked his whole life was clearly not something he was comfortable doing. The team reportedly tried everything to get him better at it, but it hindered him. Subjectively speaking, it hindered him. Was that the sole cause of his struggles this year? Was it even a cause? We’ll likely never get a straight answer, but there really isn’t a doubt the pitch clock introduction bothered him quite a bit.
The sheer volume of virtual ink spilled about Aaron Nola’s future in Philadelphia this season - about whether they should re-sign him, about how much he might have made or lost, about how in demand he actually might be - is, of course, now moot. Nola will be here for the next seven years, whether you like it or not. So let’s take this time to recalibrate expectations for Nola moving forward.
He’s not an Ace anymore. I was firmly in the bucket of people who called him a capital “A” Ace, but those days are done. He’s a second starter in a rotation that is capable of giving sterling performances.
He’s several tiers above a LAIM - “league average innings muncher.” A term adopted for picking starters in fantasy baseball, we can still apply it to actual baseball. There might not be a handful of starters more reliable for innings in baseball right now. It’s usually a death knell for the following season, but we can reasonably count on Nola to provide 180+ innings of good pitching, somewhere is the 3+ WAR category.
There will be duds. This past season has shown that there will be games where Nola turns in something less than desired when he takes the ball. In the past, we were not actually used to this phenomenon, but it’s occurring more frequently now. Is it disappointing? Of course, but that is because our expectations were different. Adjust them now and you’ll find yourself more understanding when these starts happen.
Whether you wanted it to happen or not, the extension given to Nola means he’ll be here a while longer. Betting that he’ll struggle as much as he did in 2023 probably isn’t wise. There’s too much history of his being quite good to think it was anything more than a blip on his career.
But now, that doubt has been cast. And until he proves that it was, indeed, a blip, we’ll wonder if the slide gets worse as the years march on.