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August 11, 2017

How Aaron Nola, one of baseball's best in last two months, stacks up against peers, Phillies predecessors

The second day of Phillies Alumni Weekend won’t include a Wall of Fame induction (the Pete Rose plan was scrapped less than two weeks ago) but a parade of former Phillies greats will take the field at Citizens Bank Park prior to Saturday night’s game against the Mets.

Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton will don red pinstripes, as will fellow Wall of Famers Garry Maddox, Bob Boone, Charlie Manuel, and Jim Thome, among others. Thome and Manuel were hanging out at Friday night’s game, too.

But during a weekend when the Phillies traditionally honor their history, it’s probably also a good time to recognize the best thing going in the present: the team has a former first-round pick, one of their first building blocks for their rebuild, pitching as well as anyone in baseball in the last two months.

Even as a lost Phillies season enters the dog days of summer, Aaron Nola’s starts have become must-see TV. Or, if you’re so inclined, a good excuse to come down to the 14-year-old ballpark in South Philly.

Since the All-Star break, Aaron Nola has a better ERA than the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, and many others. But Nola’s dominance has gone on for longer than since baseball returned from the break.

Nola, who celebrated his two-year big league anniversary three weeks ago, hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in a start since June 16. He has a 1.76 ERA over that nine-start run, and held hitters to a .207/.262/.317 slash line while sporting a 1.04 WHIP and a 70-to-17 strikeout-to-walk rate in 61 1/3 innings.

But wait, there’s more (all stats entering play on Friday):

  Nola’s ERA during his nine-game run (since June 22) is the lowest in the National League among qualified starters and barely trails Kluber (1.74) and Sonny Gray (1.75) in all of baseball.

  Nola has gone at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer in nine straight starts, the longest streak by any MLB pitcher in 2017 (no other pitcher has more than 7 straight such starts). Nola is the only Phillies pitcher since 1913 to accomplish that feat. [Editor’s note: This is just nuts. I had a Phillies media relations staff member crunch the numbers on his laptop late Friday night to confirm this one].

  • Nola is one of five qualifying National League starters this season with a sub-3.15 ERA and a plus-9.0 strikeout rate. Those five pitchers: Clayton Kershaw (2.04 ERA, 10.7 K/9), Nola (3.12, 9.37), Max Scherzer (2.23, 12.33), Zack Greinke (3.14, 9.97), and Robbie Ray (3.11, 10.45).

But let’s look beyond this year, shall we, and take stock of the first two years and change of the entirety of the 24-year-old Louisianan’s big league career. Nola’s most recent start (7 innings, two earned runs, no decision at Coors Field on Sunday) was the 51st of his career … which just so happens to be the same number of starts Cole Hamels made in his first two seasons in the big leagues, in 2006 and 2007.

Let’s see how Aaron Michael Nola’s first 51 career starts matches up against the first 51 of one Colbert Michael Hamels:                       

  Nola Hamels
 W-L 20-1824-13 
IP 301315 2/3 
ERA 3.863.68 
WHIP  1.2331.175 
 K/BB 3.78 3.54
K/9  9.19.2
BB/9  2.42.6 
HR/9  0.91.3 
 FIP 3.343.89 
ERA+ 107 126 
bWAR  5.46.4 
fWAR  6.7 6.5

Not too shabby.

OK, let’s try something else. Let’s compare Nola to some of his peers, which we’ll define here as fellow first-round picks drafted between 2011 to 2015 that have also appeared in at least 51 career games.

 Aaron Nola 3.861.23  3.780.92 301 
 Gerrit Cole  3.181.17 3.76 0.62 319 2/3 
Sonny Gray   2.821.14 2.66 0.55 326 
 Jose Fernandez   2.541.03 3.83  0.55311 2/3 
   Lance McCullers  3.061.25 2.99 0.64 293 2/3 
  Marcus Stroman  4.051.23 3.33 0.74 293 
 Michael Wacha  3.001.14 3.22 0.58 279 
 Carlos Rodon 3.90 1.44 2.39  0.97 286 1/3

Nola’s ERA is among the higher ones on this list, but it is notable that he’s better across the board than Rodon, one of the three pitchers chosen before he went 7th overall to the Phillies in 2014. Also notable: among those eight starters (well, seven, since unfortunately Jose Fernandez’s brilliance is gone from the game), Nola has the best ERA this season.

 ERA Games 
 Nola3.12 18 
 Cole 3.9624 
 Gray 3.3918 
 McCullers 3.9219 
 Stroman 3.1723 
 Wacha   3.7021 
 Rodon  4.24

There were also two first-round picks from that aforementioned time frame (2011-15) who just missed the 51-game cutoff. Colorado’s Jon Gray (the third overall pick in 2013) and Detroit’s Michael Fulmer (the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year) have pitched in 48 and 47 career games, respectively. Still, let's see how their career stats compare:

  Nola Jon Gray Michael Fulmer
 ERA 3.864.82  3.31
 WHIP 1.23 1.3631.122 
 K/BB 3.78 3.093.18 
 K/99.1  9.5 7.0
BB/9 2.4  3.12.2 
HR/9 0.92 1.00.8 
FIP .3.34 3.623.60 
 ERA+107  101129 
bWAR 5.4 3.4  7.3
fWAR  6.75.7 6.3 

What does all of this mean? If you put any stock in past performance as an indicator of future success, and that a professional player generally grows into a better version of himself as he enters his prime years (say, ages 26 to 31), then you have to feel pretty good about where Aaron Nola’s career could be headed.

When he was drafted three years and two months ago, Nola, who excelled at LSU, was considered a fast-track starter but few labeled him as a potential top of the rotation pitcher. Maybe he will be. Maybe he won’t.

But his first 51 starts hold up fairly well next to Hamels’ and his current peers, too.

No matter how you slice and dice the statistics, Aaron Nola has already matured into perhaps the most bankable emerging star the Phillies have on their roster and, with the obvious if-he-stays-healthy caveat, a near-lock to be an important cog on the next winning baseball team in Philadelphia.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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