Aaron Nola Has Changed, but Also Hasn’ton August 12, 2020 at 7:30 pm

Aaron Nola Has Changed, but Also Hasn’t

After strike-throwing hiccups (the percentage of pitches he threw in the zone dropped from 53% to 47%) contributed to a 2019 that was relatively pedestrian by his standards, Aaron Nola has come out of the gate red-hot in 2020. He’s getting ahead of hitters — his first-pitch strike percentage (68%) is sixth among qualified starters — and then finishing them, inducing a comfortably career-high 15.6% swinging strike rate, which is also sixth among qualified starters. Nola has now punched out an incredible 29 of the 68 hitters he’s faced this year and is one of just three starters who has fanned more than 40% of opponents (Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber are the others).

Nola has done most of this damage with his changeup, which he is using much more than at any point in his career, calling on the cambio a whopping 30% of the time after using it at about a 16% clip in prior years. The changeup itself doesn’t appear to be any different than in the past, as its movement profile is similar to his career-best 2018 campaign (it had a little less sink in 2019). Nola’s release point is perhaps a little more consistent than last year, when he was getting underneath more changeups (hence less sink) and missing badly to his arm side, but unless something tactile about his release has changed (which is difficult to detect without the aid of a high-speed camera), the pitch appears to be the same. He’s just throwing it more (including to righties) and locating it more consistently, which Nola told the Philadelphia Inquirer he aimed to do back in February.

The 2019 Phillies had well-documented player/coach discord that played a role in the dismissal of members of the field staff, including former pitching coach Chris Young, who is now the Cubs’ bullpen coach. Young had no coaching experience when he was hired, instead having served as a scout for the Houston Astros. In their piece for The Athletic, Matt Gelb and Meghan Montemurro mention Young’s strict adherence to the analytical principals that brought with him to the club that saw him expand the rate at which four-seam fastballs were thrown at the top of the zone. We don’t know what approach Young wanted Nola specifically to take with hitters, but we do know Nola’s fastball does not move in a way that’s conducive of the vertically-oriented four-seam/breaking-ball approach that is pervasive in Houston. Nola’s fastball is of the sidespin, tailing variety (it’s 10th in all of baseball by lateral movement, according to Baseball Savant), a movement that nicely mirrors that of his changeup. (The Phillies’ new pitching coach, Bryan Price, is coming off a long tenure with the Reds during which he played a role in cultivating another tailing fastball/changeup monster in Luis Castillo.)

Depending on the observer’s previous opinion, this is either an encouraging development for Nola or a coronation of a pitch that looked like his best long-term weapon as an amateur and young pro, though changeup prognostication for Nola was rather disparate. My lengthiest Nola thoughts came just after his 2015 debut, when I noted, “Nola’s changeup, which he throws effectively to both right- and left-handed hitters, is plus because of terrific arm speed and horizontal movement,” while of-the-era FanGraphs analysis is here. Former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. discussed his two pre-draft looks at Nola on a recent NBC Sports podcast, stating he considered the changeup a developmental third pitch (he also talks about the pitching coach change).

All of which is to say that while I don’t think Nola or his changeup are different, his coaching environment and approach to pitching are, and I think he has actually leveled up as a result. He is tasked with carrying a pitching staff that currently sports baseball’s second-worst team ERA and by far its worst bullpen ERA (by a full three runs!). Perhaps Philly’s unusually high rate of seven-inning games will de-emphasize their bullpen to some degree.

Internal reinforcement candidates include freshly promoted 25-year-old reliever Connor Brogdon, who I’ve just added to the Phillies org list on The Board. Brogdon pitched across three levels last year and amassed 106 strikeouts in 76 relief innings. He sat 93-95 mph and touched 97 with plus spin and vertical movement, which helped him generate a 17% swinging strike rate on his fastball. He also has a plus changeup.

I’ve also added Ramon Rosso to The Board. He’s been an Honorable Mention on past Phillies lists but has had a velocity spike this year, with his cutting fastball sitting in the 94-96 range up from 90-93 last season. Offseason acquisition Cristopher Sanchez was also recently added to the 60-man pool. And as far as external acquisitions are concerned, the Phillies are in a somewhat unique situation because their offsite camp scrimmages are being broadcast by local television, giving opposing teams a better idea of what’s happening at their campsite than most others, which could grease the wheels of a trade.

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