Analysis

Aaron Nola has changed his repertoire very quickly

Aaron NolaAaron Nola pitched very well Monday night in the Phillies’ 6-1 win over the Braves. In seven innings he surrendered just one run and five hits, striking out six and walking none. He looked in command the entire outing, relying on some superb defense (Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco, Nick Williams) to keep the ledger relatively clean.

Nola is having a great season – 137.2 IP, 3.46 ERA, 141 K, 40 BB. That’s No. 2-3 starter stuff there, and maybe an ace is hiding – heck, Nola is still only 24 (awesome, right?) – but for now, we’re pretty certain that the guy is a bonafide part of the organization’s future.

Monday was a rebound for Nola after two shaky starts. On Aug. 17 he surrendered five runs to San Francisco, and on Aug. 22 he gave up seven runs to Miami, allowing an uncharacteristic two home runs. Before that he had been untouchable for 10 consecutive starts, a run of quality starts we hadn’t seen in Philadelphia since Cole Hamels.

So, going forward, should we expect that very well, 3.10 ERA Nola, or is he closer to the guy who gave up 12 runs in 11 innings before Monday?

Looking at his three most recent starts, we’re starting to see an interesting trend develop that may answer that question in time:

Aug. 17 at San Francisco – 5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 3 K

Nola threw just 57 percent of his pitches for strikes against the Giants, far lower than his season average of 66 percent. He also wasn’t fooling anyone, getting just 13 strikes looking and six strikes swinging, down from an average of about 20 and 11 per start, respectively.

He threw his two-seam fastball (also categorized as a sinker) 38 percent of the time, which was higher than its usage during Nola’s superb 10-game run, which was 27 percent. During that run Nola featured the curveball most (29 percent), but was balancing usage of the curve, sinker and fastball quite well.

In a way this was an abandonment of the traditional fastball, which was a strike 75 percent of the time, hit safely in play once for a double.

The sinker, meanwhile, was hit safely in play twice (single, double), but was called a ball 50 percent of the time. He had bad movement on it; even still, he threw it a lot. And he paid.

Aug. 22 vs Miami – 6.1 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 2 BB, 7 K

Against San Francisco Nola had a bad start spotlighting his two-seamer, so against Miami he went the other way completely, throwing his four-seam fastball 43 percent of the time to just 12 percent for the sinker (the curve stayed at the traditional 27-29 percent).

Nola also threw the four-seam a lot when ahead (22 percent against lefties, 85 percent against righties). Here’s the weird thing: Not once did he throw the two-seamer when ahead against Miami. He’ll always toss a few sinkers when ahead, but not once against Miami.

Instead it was curve or fastball. The curve was relatively successful for him (a strike 67 percent of the time, one double out of six balls in play), but the fastball wasn’t very solid (5-for-14, HR, 2 2B), and the sinker got rocked (3-for-4, 2B, HR).

In essence Nola had no faith in the sinker (which had more dramatic movement than typically, which hurt him against left-handers Derek Dietrich and Ichiro Suzuki, who tattooed sinkers that landed right in the heart of the plate), and maybe there was reason, but he didn’t even try using it in beneficial situations.

Aug. 28 vs Atlanta – 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 6 K

So here’s the weird thing about Nola’s great outing Monday – he doubled down on the Miami strategy and threw the fastball 48 percent of the time to just 9 percent for the sinker (again, barely using the sinker in a favorable count — in fact, just once with two strikes, and he got a strikeout with it). He also threw the curve a bit more (33 percent).

The difference is the sinker had much more success against Atlanta – eight strikes to one ball, 0-for-3. Part of that is likely because the pitch’s movement was a little less dramatic, especially against lefties, who either fouled off the pitch or looked at it for a strike.

The only pitch that was truly hit was the four-seam fastball, for a .300 average (3-for-10) including Atlanta’s only extra-base hit. Moreover, Nola only got three whiffs from the fastball (6.25 percent). During his 10-start run he averaged close to 10-11 percent whiffs from the fastball. That doesn’t seem like a lot more, but if Nola is reducing his two-seam count and increasing his four-seam count, he’ll probably need to get more whiffs on that four-seamer.

Going forward

So Nola may not like the two-seamer right now. Maybe it’s broken. Either way, he’s most recently become more of a two-pitch starter, relying heavily on the four-seamer and curveball while flashing the two-seamer and changeup. It worked well against a bad Atlanta offense (.414 slugging percentage), but we’ll see if he continues this in a return start against Miami (.434). It’s a fascinating development that could dictate just what kind of pitcher Nola will be heading into 2018.

Note: Thanks to Brooks Baseball for the charts and information.

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