2020 Season Preview

Phillies Nation 2020 Season Preview: Aaron Nola

The regular season may be on hold right now, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t talk baseball. Phillies Nation will still be taking an in-depth look at your favorite Phillies players. Here’s a review of Aaron Nola’s 2019 season as well as what to expect from the ace in 2020.

Aaron Nola will be the Phillies ace in 2020. (Ian D’Andrea)

2019 Review

2019 Stats: 34 GS, 202.1 IP, 12-7, 3.87 ERA, 4.03 FIP, WHIP 1.265, 7.8 H/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.6 BB/9, 10.2 K/9

After finishing third in National League Cy Young voting in 2018, Aaron Nola appeared poised for greater things in 2019.

He began the season by taking his 2018 numbers to the bank, signing a four-year/$45 million dollar extension with a 2023 club option. He’s by far the most valuable player to emerge from the rebuild so far and the Phillies made it a priority to keep him in red pinstripes for the foreseeable future. 

Unfortunately, 2019 did not pan out the way Nola and the Phillies expected. He got off to a poor start in April, allowing at least five earned runs in three of his first four starts. His command wasn’t there and he struggled to throw deep in the games. Through his first 15 starts of the season, Nola failed to pitch six innings or more eight times. After a few bounce-back starts in late April and early May, his struggles continued into June. 

But as the summer days grew hotter and longer, Nola began turning up the heat and pitching longer into games. His first signature performance came just before the Fourth of July in Atlanta. He threw 117 pitches and struck out eight against a scorching Braves lineup that looked overmatched. Through July and August, Nola had a 2.52 ERA and looked like the ace the Phillies needed him to be:

Then September came around and for the second consecutive season, questions on Nola’s ability to pitch down the stretch arose. The Phillies lost Nola’s last eight starts of the season and by the time he was ready to make his last start against the Nationals, the team was eliminated from the postseason. Nola, who is known for his poise and composure while pitching, left the mound for the final time cursing at a crucial non-strike three call. The image epitomized not only Nola’s late-season struggles but the woes of the 2019 Phillies season.

2020 Preview

While Nola’s struggles in 2019 were evident, his status as the ace of the rotation is not in doubt. New manager Joe Girardi has not officially named an Opening Day starter, but Nola is expected to get the ball for the third consecutive year to open the season.

For the first time in his career, Nola won’t be alone at the top of the Phillies rotation. The expectation was for Jake Arrieta to pair with Nola after the Phillies signed him in 2018, but that has not worked out. Zack Wheeler’s arrival after signing a lucrative five-year contract means the Phillies will come into the season with a formidable 1-2 punch at the top. 

The problem is that two of the Phillies three competitors in the division have a better top of the rotation. It can even be argued that the team has the fourth-best rotation in the NL East with the dropoff between the top two and bottom three starters frequently cited as the team’s most glaring hole. 

Of course, a strong season from the top of the rotation can mitigate some of the issues felt at the bottom. The question is whether or not the Phillies will get production from Nola that mirrors his 2018 season. The Phillies almost certainly need him to approve upon his 3.87 ERA and avoid bad stretches for the team to make a serious push for the postseason. 

Nola has made working on his change-up a priority this spring. While his whiff percentage on change-ups last season remained relatively the same compared to 2018, his average spin rate on the change-up increased slightly. The latter could be attributed to the lower seam height and slickness of the 2019 baseball. Nevertheless, Nola was not as precise when it came to locating the pitch in 2019 compared to 2018. Nola attributed his struggles with the pitch with his inability to consistently get ahead in the count:

Nola’s changeup location in 2018 (left) vs. 2019 (right). (Statcast)

“I didn’t get ahead and I didn’t throw my changeup in an even count for strikes as much as I did the year before,” Nola said in an interview the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Brookover. “When I had a 1-1 count and threw a change-up it would go to 2-1 and when it was 1-0 it would go to 2-0. I think that was the separator [between the two seasons].”

If Nola fixes his command issues, he should be much more successful in 2020. If he remains healthy, which he has the past two seasons, expect him to go on another stretch of dominance through the middle of the season. The big question is whether he can hold up in September when the nights get colder and the pennant race heats up. In 2019, the Phillies needed to win every game Nola started.

This year, there is greater room for error with Wheeler in the rotation and if all works out well, Spencer Howard should be contributing as well. That alone could contribute to a more successful end of the year campaign for the Phillies ace. 

It’s also important to note that two things have eluded Nola throughout his big league career: a complete game and a home run. After the 2020 season, that will no longer be the case. What comes first is really anybody’s guess. 


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