It finally happened Sunday afternoon. After a month of August where he outpitched Max Scherzer twice and posted a 1.06 ERA in five starts, Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola turned in a relative clunker in a loss to the Chicago Cubs Sunday. Despite striking out 11 Cubs, Nola surrendered three home runs and gave up four earned runs in 5.2 innings, leading to his first loss since the All-Star Break. The loss caused Nola’s ERA to rise 13 points.
And yet, while starts like Sunday make it increasingly less likely Nola will be able to edge out New York Mets RHP Jacob deGrom for the National League Cy Young Award, the 25-year-old’s ERA only sits at 2.23 after one start in September. His 9.2 pitching bWAR is the highest total that a Phillies pitcher has posted since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton in 1980. If the season ended today, his 2.76 FIP would be the lowest mark that a Phillies starter has posted in seven years.
Nola is having one of the greatest seasons in Phillies history, one that in a normal year would make him a lock to win the National League Cy Young Award. But how does Nola’s 2018 season stack up against the last season in which a Phillies starting pitcher won the award? Well, it’s an interesting comparison.
In 2010, his first season with the Phillies, the late Roy Halladay became the fifth pitcher in baseball history to win a Cy Young Award in both leagues. In his age-33 season, Halladay went 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA. Here’s a look at Halladay’s numbers for the entire 2010 season compared to Nola’s 28 starts in 2018:
From this chart, one would conclude that unless Nola falls off a cliff in September, his 2018 season will be seen historically as a slightly better season than the one that Halladay had in 2010. Of course, it’s not that simple.
In 28 starts, Nola has logged 181.2 innings, meaning he’s on pace to become the first Phillie to pitch over 200 innings in a season since Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett (!!) did so in 2014. Still, Nola is likely to fall far short of the amount of innings that Halladay pitched in 2010, when he pitched 250.2 innings in the regular season alone. While logging that many innings in 2010 may have helped contribute to Halladay hitting a wall in his mid-30s, it led the sport. It’s fair enough to say that just eight years later pitchers aren’t asked to throw as many innings – Scherzer currently leads the league with 192.2 innings pitched. It’s also fair to assume that if you put 2010 Halladay in this era, he may not be on pace to pitch 250.2 innings, but he would be running away with the league lead for innings pitched because he was a freak.
So it’s worth factoring in that Halladay averaged nearly an inning more per game in 2010 than Nola has in 2018. The deeper you go into games, the more likely you are to give up an extra run or two, even if you end up tossing a complete game. Those extra runs make you look worse statistically, even if an extra run or two didn’t prevent you from getting a win after an eight or nine inning start.
Speaking of complete games, Halladay threw nine of them in 2010, four of which were shutouts. To this point, Nola hasn’t notched a complete game in 2018 (or at any point in his young career). Again, some of that has to do with how pitchers are used today. And Nola has gone eight innings three times in 2018, including a dominant eight inning performance against Scherzer and the Nationals last month. But Halladay went eight or more innings three times in April of 2010 alone. He went eight or more innings 15 times total during the 2010 regular season. While Nola’s overall numbers for 2018 may end up topping those that Halladay posted in 2011, it’s hard to ignore the workload that Halladay had in 2010.
One of the more impressive things about Nola’s 2018 season has been his ability to grind out wins on nights where he doesn’t have his best stuff. For example, Nola pitched six scoreless innings in San Diego in early August despite walking three and using 95 pitches to get through six frames. But there have been games where six innings are the most Nola can give the Phillies. If we exclude Opening Day – where Gabe Kapler controversially pulled Nola after 5.1 innings with just 68 pitches – Nola has lasted less than seven innings 14 times in 2018. That’s not to say you can’t turn in an effective six inning start, but Halladay lasted less than seven innings just five times in 2010.
How you evaluate whether Nola is having a better season than Halladay depends on how much you value the extra innings that Halladay would pitch. But if you had the chance to go into a season with 2010 Halladay or 2018 Nola, it’s hard to imagine picking against Halladay. That’s not a dis on Nola, it’s hard to imagine picking anyone over 2010 Halladay. Unless, of course, 2011 Halladay – who posted a career-low 2.35 ERA, career-low 2.20 FIP and career-high 8.3 fWAR – is available.
The other thing working in Halladay’s favor in this discussion is that the 2010 Phillies will be more fondly remembered than the 2018 Phillies. While the 2018 Phillies are following up a near-100 loss season, the 2010 Phillies were following up consecutive World Series appearances. They would make their third straight NLCS appearance that year, with Halladay winning the National League Cy Young Award. Halladay threw the first perfect game by a Phillie in 46 seasons in May of 2010. And though his postseason no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds shouldn’t factor into a discussion about regular season performance, it’s hard to push it out of your subconscious when evaluating Halladay’s 2010 season.
The feeling here is that while Nola has been a horse worthy of Cy Young Award consideration in 2018, Halladay was an entire other species in 2010. The other species was a larger-than-life figure that was capable of throwing a complete game every time he toed the rubber, something that has become a rare occurrence since his retirement.
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