The Philadelphia Phillies have seen a recent top draft pick starting pitcher go through a period of struggles, and we have a suggestion for a fix.
You’ve read about the struggles of Aaron Nola, probably ad nauseam. There are reminders of how poorly he has pitched virtually every time he takes the mound, mostly because he has been that dreadful of late.
In a recent piece at ‘Crashburn Alley’, Corinne Landrey tried talking Phillies fans down from the ledge when it comes to worrying about Nola.
“Am I worried about Nola?” writes Landrey. “No. In evaluating players, it’s important to always keep the track record in mind and what Nola has shown in his brief major league career is that he belongs at this level and he has the ability to dominate here...”
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Eno Sarris of Fangraphs went a bit further in his article a week ago, discussing how, basically, there isn’t much wrong with his actual stuff, but a few minor tweaks could help get him back on track, as his location is quite poor at this point.
“…you have to find it comforting that there’s no fundamental problem with his pitches,” writes Sarris. “He’s still striking out guys at an above-average rate, and still getting ground balls 60% of the time. They’re making a little more contact recently, but not because his curve his soft or he’s lost velocity.”
This is obvious to anyone who has watched Nola pitch of late. It seems that he’s leaving pitches in very hittable positions lately. Sarris concludes by offering a few suggestions to help Nola straighten himself out.
One suggestion he made, kind of in passing, caught my eye.
"Since his heat map has moved to the center of the plate, Nola could move on the rubber to shift that closer to the edge of the plate."
This made me raise my eyebrow a bit, as it’s something that I had thought would have been obvious to the coaching staff as a fix.
As I said before, Landrey said in her piece that in watching video, she saw “no significant difference” in Nola’s mechanics, so there probably isn’t any fear of tipping pitches. With Sarris showing that the stuff is still quality, it would seem that the Phillies’ coaches would have already considered shifting him on the bump.
So I decided to look a little deeper, to see if there was something going on with Nola’s mound placement. Mind you, I’m no pitching guru, but I just wanted to know more.
I went back in 2015 to a random game in which Nola had success, and came up with a late September start in which he gave up no runs over seven innings.
Nola’s release points from that 9/8/2015 start:
Now here is Nola’s release points from his latest 7/2/2016 start against the Royals, where he gave up five runs in five innings:
That is almost a foot of difference in release points for Nola. I then checked to see if this was what he had always done over his career big league starts, and found a remarkable consistency between last season and this season. Nola’s release point has moved almost an entire foot, on average, to his right from last year to this year.
When I went to check the video on his starts, the video evidence backs up what is represented in these charts.
If you click on the following links, you can see, in his September start, Nola has his back foot planted in the middle of the rubber. Against the Royals, Nola has moved to the first base side of the rubber.
It would stand to reason that this shift on the mound backs up what Sarris was saying about Nola commanding the outside of the zone.
If he’s standing on the first base side, when he throws the sinker, it would naturally head toward the middle of the plate.
Shifting back to where he was in the beginning of his major league career could help him command the entire plate once again, especially for someone whose sinker moves from left to right as much as Nola’s does.
Again, when I walk down the street, no one will be mistaking me for Mike Maddux or Bob McClure or any other pitching coach for that matter. Anything I have to say to a professional baseball player would probably get tossed aside.
What I am suggesting is that perhaps Nola could take this simple observation from an outside observer and use it during his extended break. At this point, it certainly couldn’t hurt.