Last year Aaron Nola was really good. He posted a 2.37 ERA, 0.97 WHIP with a 3.01 FIP along with a 9.49 K/9 that placed him among the best. He paraded up and down the French Quarter for all to see on Mardi Gras. And then Hurricane 2019 (AKA Katrina) reared its ugly head from across the sea, and has assaulted Nola with utter indiscretion and lack of mercy, destroying his and your ratios. To date, Nola has a 4.58 ERA, 1.49 WHIP and a 4.22 FIP that mostly agrees with the destruction. He was once the Big Easy, set it and forget it, an easy auto-start and reap the reward. This season he’s been the Easy At-bat, bleh.
What has happened to the party town? Why did Katrina complete decimate and flood the town despite avoiding a direct hit. New Orleans you see, is under sea-level. A city entirely protected by a system of levees that keep the water at bay. The city’s system was poorly maintained and in dire need of repair but was also build on sandy and unstable peat soil with questionable foundation. The levees failed, so the city flooded. Nola’s stats this season have been equal to a biblical flood, so what gives? First lets take a look at the damage…
Ouch. So his HR/FB rate has more than doubled, nearly equal to double the MLB average. At the same time, he is allowing better contact in all areas. This includes a 10.1% increase in hard contact jumping to 7% above the MLB average. This is followed by an increase in his BB/9 from 2.46 last year to 3.99 now. Hmmm… there may be more to see there. First, lets dive in to his pitches as I alluded to above and set a baseline.
|2018||92.7 mph||91.4 mph||84.8 mph||78.0 mph|
|2019||92.7 mph||92.2 mph||85.5 mph||79.2 mph|
As I stated in the intro you can see his velo is largely unchanged across the board; as are his usage rates, and spin rates… hmm, nothing to see here. No outliers to point to that could his explain softball league numbers. Lets take a look at his movement.
|2018||-16.8 / -7.1||-22.3 / -9.6||-32.1 / -8.3||-49.4 / 9.8|
|2019||-16.1 / -7.2||-20.7 / -9.6||-29.7 / -8.5||-48.6 / 8.8|
Most of his pitches are largely the same. There is a little exception in his Sinker sinking less and his Change changing less, i.e. they aren’t dropping as much. This is not a big different but there could be something in them relating to a lower groundball rate (3% less). This however does not explain his increased walk rate. Moving on to his pitch effectiveness.
Wow! So essentially, batters are teeing off on his Fastballs (4seam and Sinker) and not struggling with his Curve this year. Also in this data his Fastball BB% has ballooned from 7.4% to 16.5% and the Whiff% has dropped from 18.9% to 13.1%; what that tells me is that he is having trouble locating his Fastball. What made Nola so successful last year was his command of the Fastball that allowed him to get everyone to chase his other pitches, especially his Curve that had a 41.5% K down to 34.6% this season. Lets see if this holds true with his pitch discipline.
Definitely looks like he is having trouble with his command. Pitches in the zone is down 6% and batters are swinging at nearly 7% less pitches. However, they are making contact on 8% more pitches in the zone and chasing less. This tells us that because he is having trouble locating his Fastball batters are punishing the missed locations and biting less at his offspeed stuff, most importantly laying off his Curve outside the zone that has been his out pitch.
Aaron Nola and the city are one in the same. The average fastball velocity in MLB this year is 93.4 placing Nola just under sea-level. See where I’m going? A pitcher’s fastball (mostly) is the foundation of his game, what all the bricks are build off of. Nola’s levees to shore up his lack of velocity has been his pinpoint command; and without that command, without that foundation, it all begins to crumble and everything gets flooded. Nola is a classic case of missing your spots, and since his fastball does not have elite velocity, his ability to command is paramount. No command, no bueno.
So is there hope? Is Nola rebuilding after the storm? As his fastball and curve go, thus goes Nola. After an April where 54.5% of his fastballs were outside the zone, it has improved to 41.7% now in June. As for the curve, the Swing% has increased from 43.1 to 46.8%; likewise, the BAA on it has dropped from .316 to .222. Also the batter SLG for each of those pitches has dropped from April to June. Since May 1st he has 3.80 ERA and 3.27 FIP. These are positive signs that he is rebuilding the levees, repairs are being made. Repaired though, doesn’t always mean fixed. There are a few concerns like a reduced Chase% on all his pitches, yet an improved Chase-and-Whiff on his Curve (57.7 to 76.9%). So proceed with caution, but he could be a potential buy low candidate. This pitcher is under reconstruction.