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August 12, 2017

Aaron Nola keeps climbing the charts (he's among NL ERA leaders) with new weapon in arsenal

To say that Aaron Nola has been in the zone would be lazy and cliche, and it’d also be ignoring the fact that the Louisiana kid was pretty darn good out of the gate when his big league career began.

Before his early summer swoon and season-ending trip to the DL last year, Nola did the following in his first 25 big league starts from July 2015 to early June 2016: 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 153-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

But what Aaron Nola’s been able to do in the last two months is the ability to build off that natural talent that got him selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft and to the big leagues 13 months later and add to it, becoming an even better version of himself. And he only turned 24 two months ago.

What Nola has done this year, to jump from a guy with injury concerns entering spring training to a guy who will likely get Cy Young votes this fall, is gain trust in a secondary off-speed pitch that looked like quite the weapon on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park against the Mets.

Nola held the Mets to two hits in seven innings and extended his MLB-best streak of at least six innings and two runs or fewer to 10 straight starts, a Phillies record. Nola utilized his fastball command and patented curveball, but he also mixed in his developing changeup liberally to regularly handcuff New York batters in a 3-1 victory.

The only blemish on Nola’s line – and one of the only two hits he allowed – was the home run he served up to Yoenis Cespedes on a 1-2 curveball with one out and no one on base in the fourth inning.

When Cespedes came back up, with a runner on and two outs, Nola was both well equipped and well prepared.

He got ahead 0-2 and wasted a fastball up and in – not a terrible idea anytime, and particularly against a Mets team that’s made Citizens Bank Park their personal home run derby venue in the last two years. Nola followed that chin music with a filthy, sinking 84-MPH changeup to fool Cespedes and get out of the inning.

“I didn't want to let him beat me again,” Nola said. “The second at-bat I hung a curveball and he hit it out. I thought he changeup was the best pitch there.”

The fact that Nola has that pitch in his arsenal, and has no qualms using it in a pivotal spot against one of the game’s most dangerous hitters, is telling in his trust with the pitch.

“It’s a night-and-day difference,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “It gives him an extra place to go when he gets into trouble. Instead of a fastball in an out and the curveball he’s always had, now he’s got that pitch. Let’s say on a given night he doesn’t have a good feel for his curve he can go to his changeup even against right-handers and get outs, it’s always good to have that their pitch that’s working for you.”

You could make the argument that Nola is ahead of the guy he basically replaced as the guy in the Phillies rotation – his first career victory came a day after Cole Hamels’ final start in a Phillies uniform two years ago at Wrigley Field – in terms of incorporating a second effective secondary pitch. After never getting a great feel for his curveball, the pitch behind his fastball and changeup, Cole Hamels didn’t introduce his cutter until 2010, his fifth big league season.

Nola appears to have both a handle and the conviction in his changeup, his own third pitch, in Year Three of his own career.

Nola pitch usage in his big league career, entering Saturday

 FB/Sinker Curveball  Changeup
 2015 64% 24.4%11.6% 
 2016 57.7%33.7% 8.5% 
 2017 53.9%30.2% 16% 

So, yes, Nola is using his changeup nearly twice as much this season as he did last season. On Saturday, when he threw 108 pitches in seven innings, Nola went to the changeup 14 times, using it well (and for strikeouts) to complement his fastball (65 pitches) and curveball (29).

Just yesterday we went stats-heavy, with a deep dive comparing where Nola ranks at this stage of his career with that of Cole Hamels’ in his own 50-plus first big league starts. (And we also compared Nola’s numbers to other recent first-round picks, too).

But a few stats we cracked and failed to include, which, admittedly, are stats we kind of invented a few years ago when armed with a Cy Young vote and some awfully tough decisions. The stats: actual quality start (at least 7 IP, 3 ER or fewer), super quality start (at least 7 IP, 2 ER or fewer), and clunker (5 ER or more).

Since we did the math and forgot to include in that aforementioned story, we figured we’d just share them here. 

In their respective first 51 career starts:

  AQS SQSClunker 
 Aaron Nola   19 19 10 
 Cole Hamels     1821 

A trio of other Nola factoids to chew on with your Sunday brunch:

 • Since May 31, Nola has lowered his 2017 season ERA from 5.06 to 3.02 in the span of 13 starts. Nola’s 3.02 ERA ranks 8th in all of baseball and 4th in the National League behind Clayton Kershaw (2.04), Max Scherzer (2.23) and Gio Gonzalez (2.59).

 • In his last 10 starts, Nola has a 1.71 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. He’s allowed five home runs in 68 1/3 innings over that stretch (Cespedes’ home run on Saturday was the first Nola allowed in 28 innings) and he has a 78-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio during that 10-start run.

 • Nola hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his last 10 starts. Per Elias, he is the first Phillies pitcher since the current mound distance was established in 1893 to allow two runs or fewer in 10 straight starts. He is the only pitcher to accomplish the feat this season. Last season, Jon Lester (11 straight starts), Michael Fulmer (10), Kyle Hendricks (10) and Clayton Kershaw (10) all had runs of at least 10 straight starts with two runs or fewer.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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