Was Aaron Nola's first start a cause for concern or just a blip on the radar?

Was Aaron Nola's forgettable 2024 debut against the Braves a sign of a rocky road ahead or just a tough start against a good team?
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola had a rough 2024 debut against the Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola had a rough 2024 debut against the Atlanta Braves / Rich Schultz/GettyImages

Part of the beauty of a new baseball season is that everyone starts with a clean slate. You can completely erase the previous seasons struggles and hope that the new season has better things in store. The possibilities are endless and well within reach when you have that fresh start to the year.

Unfortunately for the Philadephia Phillies, Aaron Nola’s first start of 2024, fresh off of signing a seven-year extension, was more or less the same as the last couple of seasons. In the second game of the season, against the vaunted Atlanta Braves lineup, Nola gave up seven runs on 12 hits and one walk and had just three strikeouts over 4 1/3 innings. It was a disappointing start to the season for Nola, the team, and the fans.

Last season, the longest-tenured Phillie ended the season with a 4.46 ERA, 1.151 WHIP, 32 home runs, and 202 strikeouts — all of which are a far cry from career bests. The right-hander has come to be known as inconsistent on the mound, a pitcher who can throw eight shutout innings one night but then give up seven runs in just four innings another night. The hope was that he would settle down now that he has a long-term deal secured.

If the first start was any indication, there still may be cause for concern.

Let’s break down his first start and see if there is reason to be worried or if he was just unlucky against one of the best teams in the league.

Nola didn't do himself any favors against the top offense in MLB

There is no question that Nola faced one of the best lineups in the entire MLB, maybe not even in 2024, but in the history of the sport. That being said, he didn’t help himself much with his approach or execution.

Of the 24 batters he faced, he threw nine first-pitch strikes and fell behind 1-0 in 12 at-bats. In those 12 at-bats, he surrendered seven hits, including two home runs. It's never a good sign when the pitcher falls behind early, especially against a team with the offensive prowess of the Braves.

Comparing this to Nola’s 2018 season, when he was arguably at his best, is very telling. According to Baseball Reference, Nola pitched ahead in 335 at-bats, or 40.3 percent of the time, compared to pitching behind in just 210 at-bats, or 25.3 percent of the time. It’s obvious that pitching in favorable counts bodes well for the pitcher but it’s an entirely different thing to actually put yourself in those situations.

Looking closer at his pitch locations also reveals why the Braves were able to rack up the hits and runs. Looking at the heat maps on Baseball Savant, it’s clear that his knuckle curve, which he threw 37.3 percent of the time, the four-seam fastball, thrown 25.3 percent of the time, and the sinker, thrown 21.7 percent, caught way too much of the plate.

Keeping in mind the extremely small sample size against a good team, the numbers on batted balls don’t paint the best picture either. The average exit velocity was 90.5 mph with an xBA of .334. In comparison, Nola’s best xBA was .202 in 2018, and his worst was .243 in 2016.

The last point to note, which is great to see, is that Nola’s pitch velocities are right in line with where he’s been in the past. The knuckle curve sat 79.5 mph, the four-seamer was at 92.1 mph, the sinker averaged 91.1 mph, the change-up was at 85.6 mph, and the cutter sat 86.7 mph. It would definitely be more worrisome if there were a dip in his velocity.

Although Nola’s start didn’t elicit much confidence, there were positives to take away. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, the Braves are a great team, and one bad start against them doesn't mean the entire season will be bad. Nola has the foundation to have an incredibly successful season, and we will look to see if he can keep the ball out of the zone and away from the barrel of the bats in his next start against the Washington Nationals on Friday.