With the New York Yankees in Philadelphia for the first time in the regular season since 2006, it’s hard not to think about the titanic home run that Ryan Howard hit off of Mike Mussina the last time that the two teams met at Citizens Bank Park. But while much of Philadelphia will use this trip to gladly reminisce about the success Howard had during his MVP season, the 38-year-old is pretty excited about what the 2018 Phillies are doing.
Howard joined Joe Decamara and Jon Ritchie on SportsRadio 94 WIP’s midday show Monday, and paid quite the compliment to his former teammate Aaron Nola:
“He’s always been a guy that when he first came up, you knew there was something special about that kid. Now he’s kind of come into his own and establishing himself as an ace. I’d put Aaron Nola against anybody – any other ace – in a big-game situation right now.”
Nola, a 2014 first-round pick out of LSU, was Howard’s teammate during parts of two seasons in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, Nola went 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA and 4.04 FIP in 13 starts that spanned 77.2 innings. In 2016, Howard’s final season with the Phillies, Nola got off to a very fast start, posting a 2.88 ERA across his first 11 starts. However, his ERA ballooned to 8.31 between June and July of 2016, before he was ultimately shut down for the season with a right elbow strain.
After a slow start to the 2017 season, Nola turned in a breakout campaign, going 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA, 3.27 FIP and 4.3 fWAR. He’s followed that up with a scorching-hot start to the 2018 season, one that’s likely to propel him to his first All-Star Game next month. Nola is currently 9-2 with a 2.58 ERA, 2.84 FIP and 2.9 fWAR. FanGraphs says that Nola has been the sport’s seventh best pitcher thus far in 2018.
As the 2013 Phillies can attest to, just having an ace (or two aces) often isn’t enough to seriously contend. What’s allowed the 2018 Phillies to contend thus far is that behind their ace, they have gotten very good pitching. Jake Arrieta has been a mixed-bag in his first season with the Phillies, but the former Cy Young Award winner did turn in a 0.90 ERA in five starts in May. Nick Pivetta has been one of baseball’s best stories, as the 25-year-old’s 3.21 FIP is tied for the sixth lowest in the National League. Vince Velasquez, once the key piece in the Ken Giles-to-the-Astros trade, has a 3.79 FIP. And Zach Eflin, behind a velocity increase, currently has a 3.44 ERA and 2.95 FIP, just a year after posting a 6.16 ERA and 6.10 FIP, respectively.
In the interview, Howard did agree that their appear to be some similarities between the 2018 Phillies and the 2005-2007 Phillies, who were about to go on the greatest five-year run in franchise history. One difference? The 2018 Phillies appear to be set up much better in terms of pitching depth – both with what is at the majors and what’s in the minors currently – than the Phillies were in the mid-2000s. That pitching depth is lead by Nola, who Howard seems to believe is one of the sport’s best arms.