The Philadelphia Phillies lost in a rather disastrous fashion Tuesday night to the Washington Nationals, but it wasn’t because Aaron Nola failed to perform in his second consecutive start squaring off with fellow National League Cy Young Award contender Max Scherzer. In fact, for the second straight turn through the rotation, Nola outpitched Scherzer, the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner.
By now, we know that the Phillies bullpen wasn’t able to hold onto the lead and secure Nola’s 16th win. However, Nola’s seven-inning, one earned run performance did help him to cross another milestone in what’s becoming a historically dominant season.
After Tuesday evening’s start, Nola now has a 9.2 pitching bWAR. That’s the highest mark that a Phillies pitcher has posted in nearly four decades:
These aren’t just any seasons, they are among the best in Phillies history. Hamels finished in the top six in National League Cy Young voting in both 2011 and 2014 – they are probably the two finest seasons he had in red pinstripes. Lee was an All-Star in both 2011 and 2013, finishing third in a heavily contested National League Cy Young Award race in 2011 and sixth in 2013. Halladay won his second career Cy Young Award in 2010, and there’s a case to be made that 2011 was the best individual season of his likely Cooperstown-worthy career. The peak of Schilling’s career came in Arizona, but he spent the most extended period of his Hall of Fame caliber career in Philadelphia, with 1997 and 1998 serving as his two best campaigns for the Phillies. And 1980 and 1982 mark the final two Cy Young Award seasons that Carlton had in his illustrious career.
Nola, with just over a month left in the season, has topped any bWAR mark that a Phillies pitcher has posted in 38 seasons. His total bWAR, which factors in offense, is 8.9, tied with the mark that Lee posted in 2011. From here, it seems silly to factor a pitcher’s offensive contributions (or lack thereof) into their total WAR, especially when you consider American League pitchers don’t have that working for or against them because they aren’t regularly asked to hit.
One question worth asking is why Nola leads all major league pitchers currently in pitching bWAR, but is fifth in fWAR with a 5.7 mark. The answer, as this chart from Baseball Reference shows us, is that Baseball Reference (bWAR) calculates WAR differently than FanGraphs (fWAR). Each of these calculations involves way more steps than could be reasonably explained (or completed by those without a math degree), but it’s important to note that the starting point for bWAR is total runs allowed (all runs, not just earned runs). The starting point for fWAR is FIP.
Nola has the fifth lowest FIP in baseball, though there’s a 23 point difference between him and No. 4, Patrick Corbin. Meanwhile, he’s right on pace with Jacob deGrom for the least total runs allowed in the National League. Jeremy Frank, @MLBRandomStats on Twitter, also added in a few other factors that have allowed Nola to put up a historic bWAR:
He's essentially facing really tough situations (more than a run per 9 harder than, say Kershaw), with a horrible defense behind him and is still preventing runs at an elite level.
— Jeremy Frank (@MLBRandomStats) August 27, 2018
Here’s a look then at where Nola’s fWAR ranks as compared to the aforementioned Phillies seasons:
So bWAR has certainly been more favorable to Nola. The important thing to keep in mind is that for as helpful as individual statistics like WAR can be, no one statistic is the end-all-be-all. Nola is 15-3 with a 2.10 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 0.97 WHIP, a 199 ERA+ and 177 strikeouts. By just about any metric – and your eyes – Nola’s having one of the greatest season a Phillies pitcher has ever had. By this one metric, he’s having the best season a Phillies pitcher has had since 1980.
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