More Sports:

September 26, 2017

Inside the Numbers: Aaron Nola's quiet 2017 breakout season stacks up with baseball's best

The Phillies still must win one of their final five games of the 2017 season to avoid losing 100 games in a season for the first time in 56 years. At the conclusion of Monday night’s 3-1 loss to Washington, the Phils were just a half-game ahead of San Francisco on the win-loss leaderboard of all of baseball’s 30 teams, meaning they’re still very much in contention for finishing with the league’s worst record for the second time in three years, too.

There have been positives. Chief among them has been the offense’s growth in the second half (the arrival of Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins, the re-emergence of Odubel Herrera) and the continued consistency of arguably the most underrated pitcher in the National League, Aaron Nola.

Possibly even underrated in his own clubhouse.

“Nola has really established himself,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the game, running down players on the roster that have taken a step forward in their big league development in 2017. “To me, he's a solid No. 3 starter.”

Perhaps that was Mackanin’s way of politicking for the front office to go get two top-of-the-rotation arms this winter (this time last year, Pete was pleading for them to add two professional veteran hitters). But just looking at a few numbers leads you to believe Nola probably deserves to take the ball on Opening Day in Atlanta this April as a pitcher worthy to be atop the Phillies rotation.

In what was very well his final start of the season – there are only five games remaining and the Phillies began using a six-man rotation last week – Nola held the first-place Nationals to two runs on five hits in six innings on Monday night. Like many a Phillies pitcher before him in the last half dozen years, he could have used some run support.

But here’s where Nola stands after his 27th start of 2017: he has a 3.54 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 3.76 K/BB ratio.

How many major league pitchers this season have pitched at least 150 innings with an ERA under 3.75, a WHIP under 1.25, and a K/BB rate better than 3.5? Eleven.

MLB pitchers (min. 150 IP) with ERA under 3.75, WHIP under 1.25, K/BB rate greater than 3.5:

 Clayton Kershaw   2.21 0.93 6.67
 Corey Kluber 2.27  0.8617.28 
 Max Scherzer 2.550.907  4.87
 Stephen Strasburg   2.681.04 4.36 
 Chris Sale 2.750.946  7.32
 Luis Severino 3.031.046  4.42
 Zack Greinke 3.181.054  4.91
 Carlos Carrasco 3.431.106  4.71
 Jimmy Nelson 3.491.2494.15 
Jacob deGrom 3.53 1.187  4.05
 Aaron Nola  3.541.21 3.76 
Stats from

With 184 strikeouts in 27 starts, Nola also has the most strikeouts ever for a Phillies pitcher who has made fewer than 30 starts in a season. The previous record was set by Curt Schilling in 1996 (182 strikeouts in 26 starts).

“He’s done exceptionally well,” Mackanin said after the game, perhaps needing a refresher of just how good the former first-round pick was in 2017. “He’s really made great progress. He developed a changeup during the course of the year which gave him a lot of confidence facing left-handers, especially and he even uses it against right-handers. It’s another place for him to go when he gets in trouble and he’s done a great job.”

And he has a pretty good curveball, too, of course. How good was Nola’s curveball in 2017?

According to MLB Statcast data, only two pitchers in baseball got more swings-and-misses from curveballs than Nola this season, American League Cy Young frontrunner Corey Kluber and Arizona breakout right-hander Zack Godley.

Nola’s 9.86 strikeout rate (K-per-9 innings) is 14th best in all of baseball, ahead of guys like Zach Greinke, Justin Verlander, and Jake Arrieta, among others. And of those 13 pitchers ranked ahead of him, only eight have a better WHIP and K/BB rate than Nola: Kluber, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and Carlos Carrasco.

“I don’t think it’s really that surprising,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of Nola being among baseball’s best strikeout pitchers despite having an average fastball around 92-MPH. “He’s got command of three pitches. The fastball is good enough that people have to respect it and then the curveball is obviously lights out. He can throw it in any count and when you can do that you can really switch counts. So you get guys 1-2 instead of 2-1, it’s huge.”

Other than crossing the 200-inning threshold for the first time in his career in the near future, Nola said he doesn’t hone in on any stats as goals or benchmarks for a season.

“I don’t really go into the year looking at it like I want this stat or that stat, ” Nola said. “I just want to try to go as deep as I can every time I go out for a ballgame and limit the runs, and keep the guys in the game as long as I can.”

Nola’s done a fair job of that, too: he has 12 ultra-quality starts this season (at least seven innings, two earned runs or fewer) which is the same amount a Greinke with only Kershaw (16) and Scherzer (14) with more among NL pitchers.

The fact that we’re in the final week of the 2017 season and talking about where Nola ranks among baseball’s best pitchers is somewhat remarkable given where we were a year ago, or even just six months ago with the 24-year-old right-hander. Nola missed the final two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury and no one was still quite sure what to expect when he began making regular turns in the Grapefruit League back in March.

It’s safe to say Nola has quieted the pessimistic critics. And it’s also fair to say that Mackanin has been more than pleased to have a pitcher like Nola slotted anywhere in his rotation going into 2018.

The 10 other pitchers who have started games for the Phillies this year have a cumulative 5.15 ERA.

Aaron Nola, emerging top of the rotation pitcher. Aaron Nola, security blanket keeping Pete Mackanin sane in 2017.

“The goal is to have five guys (making you feel comfortable) every start,” Mackanin said. “It’s nice. When Nola pitches we all expect to win.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Like PhillyVoice Sports on Facebook.