Drafting in Major League Baseball can be difficult, especially if you’re a team starting a rebuild. Sometimes you get what you expect, sometimes you get disappointed. And then sometimes you get a pleasant surprise.
The 2014 Philadelphia Phillies needed to make a smart pick to kick-start their rebuild. With the seventh overall pick they opted to go with arguably the safest route possible, selecting a college pitcher in control freak right-hander Aaron Nola from LSU.
Nola was 11-1 with a 1.47 ERA for the Tigers as a junior. The Louisiana native had a relatively high floor, but some wondered just how high his ceiling was. Many thought the Phillies were getting a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater. 13 months later, expectations changed for the better.
The Phillies gave Nola a challenging test to start his pro career, assigning him to High-A Clearwater, skipping Low-A and both levels of rookie ball. He was as good as advertised with the Thrashers, posting a 3.16 ERA in seven starts.
The organization decided to test him one more time that summer, promoting him to Double-A Reading. He continued to impress, posting a 2.63 ERA in five starts with the Fightin’ Phils.
Nola returned to Reading in 2015 and posted a 1.88 ERA over a dozen starts while pitching his home games in the hitter-friendly confines of First Energy Stadium.
Knowing they had a Cole Hamels trade coming, the Phillies felt comfortable pushing Nola to Triple-A. He struggled a bit in Lehigh Valley, posting a 3.58 ERA in six starts with the IronPigs. But the Hamels trade looming just a week away, the organization needed to get Nola ready to be thrown into the fire that is Major League Baseball.
On July 21, 2015, only 13 months and two weeks after he was drafted, Aaron Nola stepped foot on the mound at Citizens Bank Park and impressed in his first outing against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Nola went six strong innings, allowing one run on five hits and one walk, while striking out six. The only run he allowed was a solo home run to opposing pitcher Nate Karns. Unfortunately, Nola’s offense gave him zero support, a rather frequent occurrence for that 2015 Phillies group, and he suffered a 1-0 loss.
Nola’s next seven outings were promising as well. He posted a 3.26 ERA across his first eight big league starts during the dog days of July and August. However, with expectations mounting, he suffered through an up-and-down September.
Though that September swoon quieted the expectations some, there was still much promise to take from his rookie season. Considering it was the first time he had pitched that late into the year, Nola’s cumulative ERA of 3.58 got the hype to rev back up during the off-season.
An unfortunate injury-riddled sophomore season in 2016 during which he posted a 4.78 ERA over 20 starts slowed down his progress. Nola was shut down for the rest of that season with an elbow strain following a July 28 start in Atlanta.
With injury concerns entering the 2017 season, Nola hit the disabled list after just three April starts with a back strain. He returned in late May, but still struggled some. After his start on June 16th, Nola’s ERA peeked at the 4.76 mark.
But then, something clicked. Nola went 7-3 in his next 10 starts, posting a 1.71 ERA with 78 strikeouts and dropping his season ERA to the 3.02 level. He was beginning to show why he had been considered such a “safe” draft pick two years earlier.
Nola once again had an up-and-down September but finished the year with a 12-11 record and a 3.54 ERA. For the season, Nola looked like he was developing into exactly what all the draft experts had said he would be, a middle of the rotation innings eater. But those 10 starts between June and August hinted that his ceiling might actually prove to be higher.
The Phillies and their fans saw the potential that Nola, 24 years old at the time, had and what he could become. They were more than comfortable to enter the 2018 season with Nola as their ace. GM Matt Klentak then spent $75 million on Jake Arrieta, believing the two of them could help make this team a contender. They were right.
What Nola has been this season has been nothing short of dominant. The 25-year-old has posted a 2.30 ERA across 20 starts. That is the seventh best mark in all of baseball. His 12 wins are tied for second in MLB, and he ranks fifth in innings pitched (129) and sixth with a 0.977 WHIP.
Most impressive is Nola’s mark of 4.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which is the 11th-highest total in all of baseball. It also leaves him behind only Trevor Bauer (5.0), Chris Sale (4.9), Max Scherzer (4.6), Jacob deGrom (4.3) and Justin Verlander (4.3) among pitchers. That is lofty company.
It was no surprise when Nola was named to represent the Phillies for tonight’s 2018 MLB All-Star Game at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. If they haven’t caught on already, baseball fans everywhere will now get a chance to see Nola’s talent on display.
Back at that 2014 MLB Draft, Nola was considered a safe pick because of his great command and feel for pitching. But there were many scouts and executives around baseball thought Nola didn’t throw hard enough or possess enough above-average secondary offerings to become an ace.
Nola has proved the doubters wrong. Despite only topping out his pitches at 95 MPH on a good day, the young Phillies ace has developed into a dominant pitcher, not just a thrower. He has developed one of the best change-ups in baseball as a secondary offering, and his curve ball is rapidly improving as well.
Nola has turned out to be a great pick, but he may not even be the Phillies biggest steal of that 2014 draft. His current teammate, left fielder Rhys Hoskins, went in the fourth round that same year.
There were six players selected ahead of Nola in that draft: Brady Aiken, Tyler Kolek, Carlos Rondon, Kyle Schwarber, Nick Gordon, and Alex Jackson. Those taken behind him in that first round include Michael Conforto, Trea Turner, Sean Newcomb, Matt Chapman, Justus Sheffield, Michael Kopech, and Alex Verdugo.
There are some strong players in that group, a few who could still develop into all-stars with lengthy big-league careers. But you could also argue that the college pitcher from LSU who was deemed the “safe pick” by the Phillies would be the first overall pick if that draft were redone today.
I think the Phillies are more than happy that Nola was not taken first overall, or by the next five teams either. They now have an NL all-star and Cy Young Award contender as the ace to front their rotation for years to come.
I guess you could say the Phillies and their fans aren’t disappointed in what was the first real draft as an acknowledged rebuilding team. With Nola and Hoskins in the fold, they appear to have struck draft day gold.
Phillies fans enjoyed Hoskins putting on a show and reaching the semi-finals of last night’s Home Run Derby. Tonight, it will be Nola’s turn to demonstrate his growing talent on one of baseball’s biggest stages.