(Photo Credit: REUTERS/JASEN VINLOVE)
There aren’t a whole ton of true aces in baseball. When your team has one, it’s an asset to treasure.
The Philadelphia Phillies have had their fair share over the years, including the incredible 2011 rotation that included Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Since the team belatedly triggered its rebuild a few years later, though, the rotation has been kept warm by arms ranging from middling to substandard.
That’s changing now. Not only did they take advantage of the slow offseason to sign Jake Arrieta in the offseason, but they now have a top-of-the-line starter that’s developed right in their own farm system.
Aaron Nola has been on the rise for years, but coming into the draft in 2014 he was considered more of a high-end No. 2 starter rather than an ace, probably because he didn’t possess the top-end velocity that is the current coin of the pitching realm. Regardless, this season, the 24-year-old righty has truly come into his own. Riding pinpoint control and one of the game’s filthiest curveballs, Nola has cemented himself as latest Phillies ace—just as the rebuild has hit its crescendo.
Nola was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 22nd round when he came out of high school in 2011, but the Baton Rouge, LA, native chose to go to Louisiana State instead. He dominated at LSU, winning the 2014 SEC and National Pitcher of the Year awards his junior year on the strength of an 11-1 record and 1.47 ERA. He re-entered the draft and lasted until the seventh pick, where the Phillies scooped him up.
Having been polished in college, Nola was sent straight to the higher levels of the minors at High-A Clearwater. He only pitched in seven games in the Florida State League before being deemed ready for a bigger challenge, and he did even better at Double-A Reading.
He returned to the Fightin’ Phils to start the 2015 season and went about humbling the hitter-friendly Eastern League. In 12 starts, he went 7-3 with a 1.88 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. That dominant performance triggered another promotion to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. There, he went 3-1 with a 3.58 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 32.2 innings. His quick trip through the minors complete, the Phillies called him up for his major league debut on July 21, 2015.
Nola pitched a six-inning gem against the Tampa Bay Rays but allowed a solo home run to his opposite number, Nathan Karnes, which proved the only run of the game. He got his first big league win in his next start, pitching into the eighth against the Chicago Cubs. He finished his first season 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA. The future looked bright.
But there was some choppy water ahead. After starting the 2016 season strong, he cratered in June and July. He allowed four or more runs in six of his last eight starts and when he was diagnosed with an elbow strain in August and shut down for the last two months of the season, a year that started so well ended with a sense of dread.
The 2017 season was suddenly considered something of a make-or-break year for the young pitcher. After a lackluster April and another trip to the disabled list for most of May—this time for a back issue—Nola turned his career on his head.
(Photo Credit: REUTERS/BILL STREICHER)
His first start of June was his best of the season, an eight-inning win over the Atlanta Braves. After two losses—a decent outing against St. Louis and a rough one against Arizona—Nola went on a historic run of excellence.
Nola allowed two or fewer runs in each of his next 10 starts, a streak that no Phillie had accomplished since the pitcher’s mound was moved to 60 feet, six inches—in 1893. He pitched at least seven innings in seven of the 10 games, and overall he went 6-2 with a 1.71 ERA. He held hitters to a .196 batting average and struck out 78 batters in 68.1 innings.
He had a few wobbles as the season ended, but in the space of a year he had gone from a potential injury bust to a potential ace.
That potential has been realized this season. Granted an Opening Day start—an accolade the club has historically kept from pitchers that young to deny them the leverage of using it in salary arbitration—he hasn’t given up more than three runs in a game. He’s had quality starts in his last five starts, and would have had six in his seven games had Gabe Kapler not made the mystifying decision to pull him after only 68 pitches and 5.1 innings in the opener.
His latest game was the best. On Wednesday he ended the team’s four-game losing streak by tossing 7.1 shutout innings, striking out seven and at one point retiring 17 straight batters.
Nola doesn’t have a the kind of velocity that other modern aces like Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Strasburg bring to the table, but he controls what he does have very well, and he has an immense weapon in his devastating curve, which is so good that before his drop-off in 2016 FanGraphs was already touting it as the best in the game.
The Phillies look to be taking a step forward this season, and one of the biggest reasons why is because Nola has taken the final step in his development to form a formidable one-two punch with Arrieta atop the rotation. If the Phils return to the top of the baseball world in the next few years, Nola will be one of the biggest reasons why.
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