Despite sitting third in the NL East and trailing the high-flying Atlanta Braves by 11.5 games, the Philadelphia Phillies still have a promising shot at making the playoffs. One of the keys to seeing postseason games at Citizens Bank Park again this fall will be Aaron Nola's trajectory for the rest of the season.
With a masterful performance against one of the top offenses in baseball on Tuesday, Nola showed Phillies fans the ace he can be and the ace the team will need down the stretch if they're going to play October baseball.
The 30-year-old dominated the Tampa Bay Rays over 7-1/3 innings. He scattered five hits, giving up one run and tying a season-high with 12 strikeouts.
So far, 2023 has been a tale of two seasons for Nola.
This was his third quality start in the last month and his ninth of the season. At his best, he tantalizes with his talent, but his inconsistency remains a problem for a team that needs all the help it can get to catch the Miami Marlins in the division and Wild Card races.
The first thing that jumps out when perusing Nola's numbers is his 4.30 ERA. It's right around the league average, but well up from his career 3.66 ERA and last season's 3.25 mark, a year that saw him finish fourth in NL Cy Young voting.
Despite going at least six innings in all but three starts this year, the one-time All-Star has been prone to giving up multiple runs and getting hurt by the long ball. His ERA in his nine quality starts is a stellar 2.09. The other nine outings? An unseemly 6.84.
Can Nola be the ace the Phillies need?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is a bit more complicated.
For Nola to pitch like the ace the Phillies need for a second-half run, he'll have to use this last start as a blueprint and continue lowering his ERA. Anything closer to his 3.64 expected ERA will help.
Encouragingly, all the major projection systems see him pitching to a sub-4.00 ERA for the rest of the season, ranging from Steamer's generous 3.57 mark to ZiPS at 3.95.
The former first-round pick will need to continue racking up strikeouts. This season, his K/9 is down to 9.08 while his strikeout rate sits at 25 percent; both are the lowest of his career since his debut season.
Consider that from 2019 to 2022, Nola pitched to a 10.69 K/9 and 29 percent strikeout rate. He can still generate swings and misses, but again it comes down to consistency. With three double-digit strikeout efforts this season, including his most recent gem in Tampa, it's evident that he still has the talent.
Epic strikeout numbers aren't necessary to be successful, but it helps. It would undoubtedly help Nola, mainly because when he's not striking batters out, he's giving up fly balls and home runs at a higher rate than at any other point in his career.
Home runs proving to be Nola's Achilles heel this season, again
The only blemish on Nola's impeccable performance against the Rays on Tuesday came on an eighth-inning Wander Franco solo home run. While it didn't affect the game's outcome, it highlights a problem that continues to rear its ugly head this season.
With the ball playing more juiced than in 2022, Nola's career-high 40.5 percent fly ball rate isn't cutting it, despite his tolerable 88.7 mph average exit velocity and league average eight percent barrel rate.
Through 18 starts, the righty has given up 18 home runs, by far the most on the Phillies' staff and the fourth-most among qualified starters. He has only made three starts where the ball hasn't left the yard at least once.
While Nola has struggled with home runs in the past, his 1.43 HR/9 rate this season is the highest of his career. He only surrendered 19 long balls all of last season when he ran a 36.6 percent fly ball rate and a 0.83 HR/9.
Nola's curveball may be the key to his success
With his four-seam fastball getting hit harder this year, Nola's been throwing it less; the 27.5 percent usage is down from 33.4 percent last season. He's already given up five home runs with the heater, while he only surrendered eight last year.
It's easy to see why Nola is hesitant to throw his four-seamer as often, with a lower whiff rate (21.4 percent, down from 24.2 percent), a higher slugging percentage (.433, up from .356) and a higher hard-hit rate (38.8 percent, up from 35.4 percent).
With reduced straight fastball usage, he's relying on his curveball more often, and herein lies the problem. As the Tampa Bay hitters discovered, Nola's curve can be a devastating put-away pitch.
However, the pitch has betrayed him this season. He's getting fewer whiffs and strikeouts with the breaking ball. The home run to Franco? It came on the curveball and marked the seventh long ball given up in 2023, after just four last year.
Here's how his curveball has fared this season compared to 2022:
Tuesday's start in Tampa was the ideal scenario for Nola.
Despite the home run, he had both his fastball and curve working. The velocity was up on all his offerings, with a higher-than-season-average spin rate on his breaking ball. He generated 11 of his 13 whiffs on those two pitches (six on the curve, five on the fastball) and added 10 more called strikes.
If he can get his pitches in order, he can be the stud the Phillies need him to be. The version of Aaron Nola that easily handled the Rays lineup is the pitcher that will give the team its best shot at a postseason berth.
He just needs to do it consistently.