In case you can’t tell from my dull, unoriginal title, I really tried to find a way to open this column with Saberseminar 2017 in Boston.
Yesterday and today, the most analytically inclined minds in the baseball industry gathered in a college lecture hall on Boston University’s campus to mull over the most finite details in the game. Rick Hahn (White Sox GM) spoke candidly about his club’s rebuild and how he and his staff emotionally deal with “teardowns” – he even spilled some beans that Reynaldo Lopez might be called up for a start Friday (#LanceTheBeatWriter) – while Tom Tippett, Red Sox Senior Analyst, dove into all the details unaccounted for in dollar-per-WAR retrospective contract valuations. There was even a chemist by the name of Stephanie Springer – unrelated to George Springer – who closed her powerpoint with an ominous bullet-point implying players might have an advantage in PED screening (yowzas indeed). I plan on detailing my experience in a post for my brainchild BigThreeSports, but let’s get to the matter at hand.
We need to talk about Aaron Nola…
I usually drum up column ideas through the week and this deep-dive had been bubbling around in my frontal lobe for a while. After Nola’s ninth straight outing of six or more innings on Tuesday, I couldn’t hold back. I spent the entire eight hour day at Saberseminar daydreaming about what I would ask Nola if he was sitting next to me (but seriously, Rick Hahn is the man). “Should I take you in the first round of my fantasy league next year?” and “When will Rhys Hoskins be up?” were vying for the lead.
In weekly word association games that I play by myself, Nola is often paired with floor. Not because I collapse with excitement to said floor whenever I think about him, but because he’s a good example of a high-floor pitcher. With the pitching landscape in this glorious year of 2017, if you give me an arm with no glaring control or home run issues, and one that has accumulated 200+ innings at the major league level before his age 25 season, I’m as happy as a clam.
Add to that results that actually inspire and we’re looking at a Phillies (!!!) pitcher that plopped himself inside the top 125 on the player rater to date; the 25th overall pitcher. Crazy fact of the day? The rest-of-season Player Rater actually likes Nola more than his current standing as the 25th best starter (23rd). I’m not certain whether Rudy’s model has some kind of ‘consistency’ factor in it, but I’d imagine our robot overlord’s love for Nola lends itself to something that can be tied to a high floor.
We’re not talking about one of the Sale, Scherzer, of Klubers of the world, and we don’t need to be. There are only 14 pitchers in baseball with 100 or more innings, a strikeout rate above 25%, and a walk rate below 7.5%. Arbitrary boundaries indeed, but when you realize that our sample doesn’t include Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, and Jacob deGrom, widening your eyes in awe is an acceptable reaction.
On top of all this, Nola’s pitch mix is enviable. He possess three plus-grade pitches per Fangraph’s pitch value/100 metric, with a fourth that sits basically at league average. That pitch that I bemoan as “league average” is his four-seamer, an offering he has turned to in a way that resembles 2015 Nola more than 2016 Nola (more four-seamers, less sinkers). Nola has a four-pitch offering that is as close to a four-way split as you can get. Let’s take a look…
It’s gorgeous mix, especially with the confidence that each of them is effective. Your intuition might suggest those pitch usage numbers change when splitting between batter handedness, but Nola’s changeup has been so uncharacteristically good this year, he’s done something a lot of starters veer away from: a changeup at 8%+ to both lefties and righties. There is a tendency for Nola to rely on his change more against left-handed bats, but the variations among his other pitch tendencies between handedness aren’t discernible enough to create a issue in the effectiveness of one individual pitch. This is partially backed up by the fact that Nola has a slight edge in effectiveness versus right-handed bats, but overall, has maintained an average against of sub-.250 for both, with peripherals than don’t signal immediate alteration.
There is so much to like and in a way, this mix of talents and pitches all play into this floor I’m so enamored with. The ability to turn to other pitches when the “feel” on one in a given start isn’t “right” limits the chance for blow-up starts. While I don’t have readily available correlations to back this up, I don’t mind relying a bit on intuition here (that’s just as good… right?). Pitchers do lapse in command on certain on given nights, and the last thing you want for a starter you roll out is for him to lose confidence in an out-pitch. Chris Archer has always been a weird exception to this rule. His slider-fastball combo accounts for about 93% of all the pitches he throws, and 100% of those to right-handed bats. You’d think if he lost the feel on his slider in a given outing, it would be a cake as a righty to tee off on the only other pitch he throws. Yet he has accumulated 15.2 Fangraph’s WAR over his last four seasons.
So what does all this jargon mean for your fantasy team?
Yes, you should own Nola for the stretch run. Yes, you should jump all over him in 2018 when he – fingers crossed – sits outside the top 25 pitchers in ADP because of that three-letter tag of ‘PHI’ that makes everybody purse their lips.
Jon Lester is projected for 65 innings with 65 strikeouts, a 3.77 ERA, and a 1.23 WHIP (per Razzball/Steamer).
Aaron Nola is projected for about 53 innings with 55 strikeouts, a 3.68 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP (per Razzball/Steamer).
With about ten spots separating the two and $6 worth of value per the Player Rater, their fantasy-relevant stats are dead even from a ratios standpoint… and almost everywhere else too. If you eliminate the coin-flip that is the “pitcher win,” their comparative value becomes even closer to moot. It’s hard to find a scenario at any point this year where you’d consciously choose Lester over Nola, which makes the comparison that they’re nearly identical from a projected value perspective intriguing.
If you’re looking towards next season, take a deep breath and really consider who you want. The 34-year-old who holds a 4.85 FIP since hitting the 100 innings pitched mark at the end of June? Or will be 25-year-old with stability over two seasons of work, even while his health teetred? Given the advanced aging curves we’ve already been exposed to, we can tell FIP starts to tick up after a hurler’s age 31 season, with quicker decline as you approach 35 – *cough* Jon Lester *cough*. I will be very interested to see the differential between Nola and Lester on early 2018 rankings. If it’s bigger than say 5-7 spots for the favor of Lester – I get the argument that you’d prefer a lefty on a better team – my red flag will be promptly thrust into the air. For me? I bet I’ll have Nola ahead, unless some environmental factors pop in and change the state of the argument.
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