A rotating bean rising against the warm September sky. It hangs for a millisecond, just enough for the eye to catch its apex. It’s perfect to strike, right in the sweet spot.
Then it tilts. It cradles the damp air as it settles out of the frame. At that moment the swinging hitter is shocked not to feel a blow on his bat, now sensing the doom of his dangerous decision. The orb falls into the glove way off the plate. An exclamatory bellow. A cause for celebration. The pitcher has stepped from his office and is returning home.
Aaron Nola spun his magic curveball en route to a seven-strikeout performance Tuesday against the Atlanta Braves. That curveball generated weary reactions. For Nick Markakis, a pair of rolled eyes. For Nick Swisher, a frustrated huff. The Braves hitters had no answers, not even a method in which to approach this subtle domination. Seven innings. Eighty-five economical pitches. Sixty strikes. An outrageous ratio. A superb performance for a newcomer at age 22.
Now, with 10 Aaron Nola starts behind us, we’re beginning to sketch the rough draft of the pitcher’s near future. We hope we can someday slot him behind a powerful ace – there are few, like David Price or Max Scherzer – or maybe the day comes that Nola is himself the ace.
But before we get completely carried away, Nola has plenty of work to do. Foremost, he should continue developing that third pitch. Like Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick before him, Nola can successfully live for 30 to 50 starts with a fine two-pitch combination. His curveball, as we know, is exceptional. His two-seam fastball bites. He can control both pitches well. This will work for a while.
But already we’re seeing the issues Nola can face with his current third pitch, the changeup, which profiles as a good pitch but isn’t seeing the same results. PITCHf/x puts his changeup at a value of 2.1 runs below average; hitters strike it for a .357 average. Now the changeup hasn’t been rocked, surrendering eight singles and a double in all, but considering Nola’s rope-a-dope strategy, he’d do well to hone the change into more of an out pitch and not a chance pitch that could get past fielders.
That brings us to the second point: fielders. Two things have happened when Nola gives up runs: good hitters cream mistakes, and bad fielders cause problems. Domonic Brown flubbed a fly off the bat of Justin Upton in San Diego – to be fair, a shiny light display may have distracted him – and later in New York, we know what happened when Ruben Tejada hit a conspicuous dinker into right field. Also in that game, Daniel Murphy laced a ball down the right field line, but a more agile fielder at first base would’ve likely snared the ball before causing any trouble.
Point is: With better fielders out there, Nola will have better results.
The third issue facing Nola is a slight tendency to be aggressive to really good hitters, which results in real problems. I see a lot of similarities between Nola and another Phillies pitcher, Cliff Lee. One of those: he’s actually too good commanding the plate that, sometimes, even a decent pitch in the zone is crushed because a good hitter can get to it. Case in point: Paul Goldschmidt, one of the best hitters on the planet, hit a low two-seamer the opposite way, right through defenders, for an RBI single in the Aug. 12 game in Arizona. Goldschmidt later hit a middle-in changeup the opposite way for a triple. I’m not exactly sure why Cameron Rupp was asking for any pitch middle-in against Goldschmidt, but Nola didn’t really miss the spot. Goldschmidt is just really good, and Nola probably should have pitched around him with a runner on second, one out, and a one-run lead in the fifth.
Also in that Mets game, emerging slugger Michael Conforto launched a 2-0 two-seamer for a home run; there, Rupp called for a lower pitch, but Nola just missed it. On 2-0, Conforto was looking mistake.
Nola also threw a true mistake to Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays. Rupp called for a low fastball; Nola missed badly, putting it right in the potential AL MVP’s happy zone. The ball was long gone.
The point is even good pitchers throw bad pitches, and sometimes to good hitters. The pitchers with pinpoint control throw more good pitches in the zone, but even the good hitters can hit them sometimes. It’s likely Nola will show more care with the best hitters; if he does that, he’s already well ahead of his peers.
With that said, Nola’s further along than most in early development. For somebody born after Mariano Duncan socked a grand slam against Lee Smith, Nola is already in full command of his strongest two pitches nearly all the time.
Back to the great comparison, as I noted before. Nola’s composure, command, and movement echoes peak Cliff Lee. Of course, Lee had full command of at least four outstanding pitches during his peak, but Nola is already halfway there at age 22. Moreover, Lee began as a power pitcher, stumbling before reinventing himself as the ultimate finesse pitcher. Nola is already a finesse pitcher; his issue is that he’s still understanding how to best utilize his repertoire. Moreover, Nola could discover and master a new pitch, much like Hamels mastered the cut fastball to become an elite-level ace.
But that’s for later discussion. This week, after watching Aaron Nola carve the Braves like a roast with his slicing curveball, we can sketch a young pitcher who possesses the tools to be a solid component for the next great Phillies team. We can give him 30 to 50 starts, right on through the end of 2016. And we can hope that ball continues to tilt and hush into that glove.