The Phillies have plenty of problems. The top of their rotation isn’t one of them.
Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler combined for a 3.14 ERA in 140 1/3 inning pitched in 2020. Both finished tied for 11th in Major League Baseball in fWAR among starting pitchers. It marks the first time since 2013 the Phillies had two pitchers that finished in the top 11 in fWAR. Cliff Lee (5.6) and Cole Hamels (4.7) were the last to do so.
With many holes to fill, the Phillies would be wise to pass on the only top tier starting pitching free agent in this year’s class in Trevor Bauer.
Bauer will most likely win this year’s National League Cy Young Award. Heading into September, it looked like Nola still had a chance to bolster his case for winning the award. He went into the final month of the season with a 3.00 ERA in six starts. His dreadful start in Atlanta where he surrendered four earned runs in 2 2/3 innings was the only blemish.
The only problem? It was September. Nola has struggled in past Septembers.
In 27 career starts in September and October, Nola is 7-14 with a 4.28 ERA. His end-of-year struggles are a bit of a mystery.
“I don’t know to be honest,” Nola said following his final start of the regular season. “I wish I had an answer. Just bad luck in September I guess.”
He might have a point about being unlucky this time around. Similar to 2019, his batting average on balls in play against in September was about 100 points higher than it was in August. Unlike last season, Nola was better at limiting hard contact (26.4% in September vs. 29.4% in August). His September FIP of 2.94 suggests the final month of 2020 should have gone better than it did.
It’s difficult to definitively conclude that Nola is a bad pitcher in September. He certainly was in 2019. Nola posted a 6.51 ERA in 27 2/3 innings pitched. His 58.9% hard-hit percentage last September was by far the worst out of any other month of his career. Nola surrendered nine home runs in September 2018. He gave up only eight from March to August during his stellar 2018 campaign in which he finished third in NL Cy Young Award-voting.
Nola earned the reputation he had heading into this September and he probably could have put that narrative to bed if he led the Phillies to the playoffs on the final day of the season. Instead, Nola surrendered six hits and three earned runs in 3 2/3 innings in what was a massive disappointment all around for the Phillies, who didn’t score a single run against the Rays.
“I think what he lacked was command of his fastball and you don’t see that a lot,” Joe Girardi said about Nola’s performance on Sept. 27. “But he did today and I think it got him into deep counts and he got into trouble at certain points.”
Nola says he doesn’t change the way he prepares in September. It’s just “not going my way,” according to him.
If everything does go his way for the first five months of the 2021 season, Nola should get another chance to finally finish the regular season on a high note.
The Phillies ace is far from the reason why the team failed to make the playoffs the last three seasons but questions on whether Nola can step up in big games will continue to arise. The team’s aim is to at least be in the playoffs next season and if Nola’s end-of-year struggles continue, many will doubt whether he can perform in October.
Nola manager, however, has all the confidence in the world in him.
“He gave me everything he had,” Girardi said on the conversation he had with Nola after his final outing. “He did all year long. This guy’s a winner. He works as hard as any pitcher I’ve ever been around and prepares. There’s never any stone unturned when it comes to Aaron Nola to be prepared for a start. Sometimes, you’re just not going to have your ace stuff but he fought through it.”
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