Last year, Aaron Nola started thirty-two games. He threw seven innings or more in just five of them. This year, through June 18th, Nola has made fourteen starts – he’s pitched seven or more innings in seven of them. In eight of his starts he’s allowed only two runs or fewer and has held opponents to one or fewer baserunners per inning in nine outings.
Something has changed.
It’s a sentiment that can be felt around the Phillies’ clubhouse, the team now 15-3 in the month of June, but in none does it resonate as strongly as Aaron Nola. That change is evident every time he takes the mound – the energy around him is different than in years past. So often last year did his face bear the look of resignation, eyes flitting about as if to wish he were anywhere else on earth. He was a man at odds with himself, constantly scrapping and clawing to find it – the confidence and command that had defined him as one of the game’s better starting pitchers.
While Nola’s talent remained, he never could quite find it and his search left him weary, all too often fighting for the dignity of making it out of the 5th inning. May 21st, 2021: 5.0 IP, 4 ER, 9 Strikeouts. Loss. June 30th, 2021: 4.2 IP, 7 ER, 11 Strikeouts. Loss. Nola’s 2021 season is filled with stat lines like this – high strikeout, yet low efficiency outings with high pitch counts and even higher opposing batting averages. He was tired and it showed.
This year, however, Nola no longer looks tired. Yes, his trance-like demeanor on the mound hasn’t changed – if he had a nickname, it would be Krueger, as in Freddy Krueger, the monster who kills you in your dreams. Instead of eliciting an internal struggle, Nola’s face now portrays a zen-like focus. He is in command and he knows it.
Nola’s turnaround stems largely from harnessing his command and shucking the crown of strikeout king – while he can still accumulate K’s in droves, he instead lasts deeper into the game on fewer pitches. In his last five starts, Nola has 35 strikeouts, but more importantly zero unintentional walks and a 1.35 ERA. His last three starts look like this: 8IP, 8 SO, 106 pitches, 7IP, 6 SO,107 pitches, 8IP, 6S SO, 103 pitches – with only two earned runs across that stretch. This efficiency has been paired with a 3.7% walk rate and a 0.87 WHIP – both metrics leading qualified National League Starters.
Nola has also changed his plan of attack – he’s throwing less 4-seam fastballs (37.5%-30.4%) and more sinkers (14.1%-21.8%). This switch in approach has not only garnered a higher first pitch strike percentage (66.6%-68.1%), but has also allowed Nola’s other pitchers – namely his curveball and change-up to flourish. Whereas last year opposing batters could sit on Nola’s curveball, depleting its effectiveness, now hitters are forced to respect Nola’s fastballs – resulting in lower run values and batting averages against his pitches across the board.
It has been four long seasons since 2018 – the last time Nola truly had it. Now, once again in possession of his command, his control, and most importantly his confidence, Nola’s only limits are those that he puts upon himself.