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Aaron Nola’s elite changeup is a difference-maker in 2020


One of the least surprising developments of the 2020 Phillies season is Aaron Nola’s reemergence as a Cy Young candidate. It’s no secret he’s at his best during the summer stretch and the abbreviated nature of the 2020 season has not broken that pattern.

Aaron Nola has a 2.40 ERA in 2020. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

What has been a surprise is the way in which he’s been able to achieve success. Nola’s still the same pitcher he’s been his entire career. He won’t blow guys away with a high fastball in the upper part of the zone. Instead, he relies on getting ahead in the count, changing eye levels and using his off-speed pitches to get batters out.

None of that has changed. What has changed is the effectiveness of one of his four pitches: his changeup.

During spring training I, Nola sought to improve his changeup command. When he spoke to Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer in March, he believed the big difference between his stellar 2018 season and inconsistent 2019 was his command of the changeup in even counts.

“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 told Brookover. “When I had a 1-1 count and threw a changeup 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]. I think when I’m throwing everything for strikes I have three pitches that I can beat you with and that’s my main focus every year.”

Aaron Nola’s pitch type frequency from 2016 to Sept. 11, 2020 via Baseball Savant.

In 2018, Nola threw a 1-1 changeup 107 times. In 2019, he threw 73 1-1 changeups. Here is the difference in results.

Nola’s results on his changeup in 1-1 counts from 2018 to 2019 via Brooks Baseball.

Much of the same can be said in 1-0 counts. Nola threw a changeup for a ball 43.28% in 2019 as opposed to only 27.27% in 1-0 counts in 2018.

In a small 2020 sample size, Nola’s changeup command in those two counts isn’t much better than it was in 2019. When you combine both counts, 38% of changeups thrown in 1-0 and 1-1 counts have been called a ball. It’s an improvement from last season (45%), but not quite where he was in 2018 (28%).

Nola’s changeup results in all counts from 2018 to Sept. 11, 2020 via Brooks Baseball.

While he hasn’t necessarily fixed what he sought to improve, Nola’s results with the changeup in all counts are as good as they were in 2018.

The curveball is still Nola’s best pitch, but the changeup has become his go-to. He’s thrown it more often than any of his other four pitches. Only four pitchers in MLB have thrown a greater percentage of changeups than Nola has.

Nola has also done an excellent job at mixing in all four of his pitches. His sequences are about as unpredictable as they have ever been. Nola’s plan of attack was simple in 2019: fastballs early, curveballs late. Since he has more confidence in his changeup in 2020, his pitch selection — especially with two strikes — is drastically different than in years past.

Nola’s pitch selection with two strikes from 2018 to Sept. 11, 2020 via Brooks Baseball.

His command improvement along with his ability to mix all four pitches has transformed into results. Nola has the fourth-best strikeout to walk ratio in baseball, along with the sixth-lowest ERA in the National League.

Nola’s also a completely different pitcher when facing a lineup the third time through. In 2019, Nola had a 6.75 ERA when facing hitters a third time. This time around, his ERA is 2.45 ERA. Not to mention, he’s thrown at least seven innings in six of his nine starts.

He’s been the ace the Phillies needed him to be, but the team has only managed to win five out of his nine starts.

He earned his first-career complete-game win in a shutout victory over the Marlins in seven-innings last time out and is aiming to lead his team to the postseason for the first time since 2011. The Phillies need around six victories out of 12 to clinch a playoff spot. Counting Thursday’s outing against the Mets, Nola has three starts remaining. Zack Wheeler is slated to make two more starts.

Nola will garner a few Cy Young votes, but the honor will most likely go to either Jacob deGrom, Trevor Bauer or Yu Darvish. It’s easy to wonder, however, if he would have a better chance through a 162-stretch considering he now has two elite offspeed pitches to work with.

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