The Philadelphia Phillies have had little to cheer about this season. Sitting at the bottom of the NL East, they called up baseball’s most “MLB ready” pitching prospect, Aaron Nola, to start Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Through the minors, Nola held an impressive 9.09 K/9 through six starts, including a 3.17 FIP and 2.48 BB/9. He has been touted as having excellent command of his trio of pitches, and the baseball world was buzzing when he stepped onto the stage. I joined in on the fun and watched his MLB debut in Philadelphia. Here is Aaron Nola’s GIF Breakdown of that start in 11 HD GIFs.
As always, let’s first look at his strikezone plot for the evening:
Unfortunately, Brooks Baseball didn’t have the data available for a strikezone plot, so we’re going to with Baseball Savant today. Mostly, Nola kept the ball down in the zone. His secondary pitches rarely appeared near the belt, and often ending at the knees. While he started off with some shaky Fastball locations, Nola made adjustments through the game to flex solid command and hit spots frequently. He was able to elevate his Fastball when he wanted to, and effectively place both his Curveball and Changeup. When he missed, he usually missed down in the zone, giving the opportunity for batters to get themselves out on pitches they had no business swinging at. It’s a great strikezone plot, and a notable debut for the 22-year-old.
Now let’s take a look at his pitches individually across the debut:
Note: Usage percentages and velocity numbers represent Tuesday’s game only and were taken from Brooks Baseball.
Fastball: 64.8% thrown, Average 91.9 MPH, Max 94.6 MPH
Nola rotates between a Four-Seamer and a Two-Seamer. Often times pitchers grasp the ability to command one of these better than the other, and slowly begin to phase out the runt. However, Nola impressed me by being able to mix both fluently and take full advantage of their characteristics. He used his Two-Seamer to keep hitters off balance and induce groundouts while using Four-Seamers to hit locations with a little more velocity. To give you an idea, here he is spotting up a perfect Four-Seamer in on the hands of Rene Rivera:
Now that’s how you locate. Nola had little fear going inside to right-handers with his Four-Seamer, which is most commonly avoided given that a small mistake toward the middle of the plate often results in a crushed baseball. Nola didn’t just locate inside, though. Watch Evan Longoria whiff on this elevated heater on the outside corner.
Given Nola’s titled angle in the three-quarters arm slot, his Four-Seamer gives the perception of rise that isn’t there from pitchers who are more pronounced over the top. This deceives batters and can make it tough to square up – or resist in the first place – Fastballs up in the zone. When Nola changed it up and threw Two-Seamers, he was able to generate outs even when he didn’t his spot:
Just look at the immense ride from the middle of the plate to the inside corner that saws off Evan Longoria‘s bat. You can thank his lower arm slot once again as it helps him earn more horizontal pull. With that kind of movement, hitters had trouble distinguishing between the pair of Fastballs, and struggled to square up to drive pitches with authority. Then when Nola locates he can get quick strikes with ease:
There can be a lot of focus given to pretty breaking pitches and overpowering Fastballs, but these 0-1 pitches are vastly underrated and transform a good pitcher into a great one. That single pitch turned the at-bat from 1-1 to 0-2, and now Nola is in control. A 89 MPH Two-Seamer with a bunch of sink right on the inside corner is never going to be clobbered, and will result in weak foul bats, jammed groundouts, and advantages in at-bats. With this ability just from his Fastball combination, Nola has an excellent foundation for his off-speed pitches.
Changeup: 17.1% thrown, Average 82.5 MPH, Max 84.3 MPH
Among Nola’s secondary offerings, his Changeup flashed the most consistency and effectiveness through his debut. He was able to keep the pitch low in the zone, while comfortably mixing it to hitters on both sides of the plate. Here’s a quick glance at the life of his slow-pitch:
There really isn’t a better place to spot your Changeup for an 0-0 pitch to a lefty. James Loney had already whiffed on a pitch very similar in the first inning, and he was a bit frustrated to see it again, this time just catching the outside corner. Normally this type of pitch would be reserved for staying away from lefties and abandoned against right-handers altogether in favor of a breaking pitch. Not with Nola, as he never shied away from his Changeup, regardless of the batter. You wouldn’t too if you could fool Rene Rivera this badly on a 2-1 pitch:
That pitch is something else. Not only does it have incredible movement as it dives from the middle of the plate down and in, but the confidence in the rookie to toss a 2-1 Changeup is remarkable. The only other young pitcher I can recall that shared that same trust in his Changeup is Noah Syndergaard, who I’ve expressed as the most mature rookie arm this season. Watching Nola use all the tools in his repertoire without hesitation was great to watch, and he was often rewarded for it. Here Nola threw an excellent 1-1 Changeup down and away to get a quick out against Evan Longoria:
Nola can go places if this command is there every time he’s out on the hill. He may not be an overpowering strikeout machine, but he will go deeper into games and keep batters uncomfortable if this Changeup is always at his side.
Curveball: 18.2% thrown, Average 78.1 MPH, Max 79.6 MPH
Nola’s final weapon is a Curveball that seems slightly above average. It didn’t have the ferocious bite that we’ve seen across the league, and he didn’t have same command of the pitch as he displayed with both his Fastball and Changeup. Still, he was able to use it in a variety of ways to make it difficult for batters. He tossed it for a first pitch strike:
He could also spot it down and away to make batters chase for the strikeout:
Or he could stun them and throw it front-door to induce a knee-buckling backwards K that earns attention from the crowd:
He threw just one more Curveball over his Changeup across the outing, but it appeared to play the lesser role in the start Nola was painting. If he can consistently keep it down and away to batters like against Steven Souza Jr. while also confidently using it as a “show-me” first pitch strike, it will be very effective in keeping hitters off-balance and second guessing Nola’s approach. It’s not going to carry him on a given night, but it is an effective addition to a well-rounded repertoire.
Final Line: 6.0 IP, 1 ER, 5 Hits, 1 BBs, 6 Ks
I didn’t really know what to expect when I sat down to watch Nola, and I my first impression features a young pitcher who has the upside of a Top 30 spot. Outside of a shaky first few hitters, Nola didn’t appear nervous but rather in control as he collected outs, allowing his only ER on a solo shot by opposing pitcher Nathan Karns. He walked his only batter in his final frame as he hit the 80 pitch mark, and the adrenaline from the outing may have masked his body slowing down. His combination of Fastballs presents a solid floor, as he features great deception along with solid command all around the plate. His Changeup will be the primary #2 pitch that will frustrate hitters, and he was able to keep it down throughout his performance. His Curveball, by no means a poor pitch, needs a little work with consistency, and doesn’t have the sharp break that would generate consistent punchouts. I’m curious what I’ll see in future starts, as it’s tough to believe a pitcher’s Changeup command is this solid, while he seems to have some questions about going deeper into games. Nevertheless, he has the stuff and control to be a very effective pitcher, and with such a high floor, the Phillies have to be very pleased with their youthful starter.
As always, I’ll leave you with a pitch that encapsulates a heavy focus of our featured pitcher. Here Aaron Nola throws an excellent 1-1 Changeup down and away to get earn a strike against James Loney: