After a quick start, can the Phillies’ Aaron Nola still rise to top form?

Nola has started the season strong, but there’s still room for improvement.
Philadelphia Phillies starter Aaron Nola
Philadelphia Phillies starter Aaron Nola / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

There’s something about Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola and even-numbered years. For the past six-plus years, since he hit his true major league stride in 2018, every even-numbered year, Nola has flirted with greatness.

In 2018, he posted a 2.37 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. In both 2020 and 2022, he also finished in the top seven for that award and posted ERAs under 3.29 and WHIPs under 1.08.

In odd-numbered years beginning in 2019, he flirted with a 4.00 ERA (3.87), then hit 4.63 and 4.46. Some odd-numbered years were a real slog, particularly early on.

This is good news for Phillies fans, then, since 2024 is obviously an even number.

After a quick start, can the Phillies’ Aaron Nola still rise to top form?

True to form, Nola has started out very well this season, winning four games and losing one before his start Friday night against San Francisco. Before that start, his ERA was 3.20 and his WHIP 1.07.

Can he improve on his/these early-season figures, and how can we tell?

Some advanced metrics suggest he has a way to go to catch up to his most dominant regular season, 2022. Ironically, that season, Nola finished 11-13, further demonstrating that win-loss records can be fairly useless.

However, before we dive into some statistics, keep in mind that Aaron Nola has always been the same sort of pitcher. He doesn’t have dominating velocity, he throws a really good curve with sharp downward movement, and he gives up too many home runs between the fourth and sixth innings.

To evaluate such a pitcher, walk, barrel, and hard-hit rates need to be examined. He doesn’t throw all that hard, right? Yes, and because he must hit his spots using movement, chase rate is also important.

In 2022, Nola’s walk rate was 3.6 percent, his barrel rate was 7.1 percent, and his hard-hit rate was 31.6 percent. His chase rate was 34 percent. That season, these figures were in the 99th percentile, the 52nd percentile, the 92nd percentile, and the 90th percentile — far better than his peers that year in three areas and better than half of the others in a fourth.

His chase rate has been fairly consistent throughout his career, hovering around 33 percent after 2018. Some years that figure pushes a pitcher to the 90th percentile. Other years, getting a swing-and-miss every third pitch pushes him down into the 70s in percentiles.

Thus far this year, Nola’s numbers generally trail but are similar to the 2018 numbers he posted in his second-most dominant season. That year, his walk, barrel, hard-hit, and chase percentages were 7.0, 4.6, 31.2, and 30.0 percent (70th, 83rd, 82nd, and 74th percentiles). This season, those percentages are 8.5, 8.3, 38.0, and 31.1 (48th, 36th, 53rd, and 76th percentiles) after seven starts.

But again, it’s still early in an even-numbered year, superstitious fans.

Nola's postseason performance may be more important than his regular season

Perhaps more important than pointing out what analytics suggest about Nola’s best regular season are the facts of his performances in the 2022 and 2023 playoffs. In the 2022 postseason, his most dominant regular season, Nola seemed to tire, posting a 2-2 record and 4.91 ERA.

But in 2023, after a somewhat lackluster regular season, Nola posted a 3-1 playoff record and a 2.35 ERA, stumbling only in his last appearance against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Did the Phillies figure out in 2023 how to save some of Nola’s strength for the playoffs?

Friday night against the Giants, the veteran somehow managed to walk four batters in one inning (subscription required) on his way to setting a personal record for pitches thrown in an inning (46). He was removed from the game after grinding through 89 pitches, including the five pitches he threw to Jorge Soler to end the fourth inning on a foul pop-up.

After the game, manager Rob Thomson admitted Soler would have been Nola’s last batter regardless of the outcome of the at-bat, but Nola felt “some of [his] misses weren’t that bad,” per Jeff Neiburg of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Phillies won 4-3 despite the rocky outing.

Which version of Aaron Nola will we see the rest of the way?