BRADENTON, Fla. -- There aren't many pitchers across baseball who've dealt with workloads similar to Aaron Nola the last five years. Beyond leading the majors in innings pitched since 2018, he threw an additional 25⅔ during the Phillies' month-long playoff run.
As such, his ramp-up process this offseason was slower than usual. He had four fewer weeks of downtime and took a more methodical approach to prepare himself for spring training and the grind of 162. He focused on his delivery and command, not worrying about how hard the ball was coming out of his hand.
Nola had the sort of uneventful two-inning stint Monday that a pitcher would want in his first start of the spring. He used his fastball, curveball, changeup and cutter, pitched a 1-2-3 first against the Pirates and stranded a leadoff walk of Andrew McCutchen in the second. His fastball sat 90-92 mph, not a bad number for a spring debut.
"It felt pretty good. I just wanted to get used to the pitch clock, first off," Nola said. "Just to get back in my delivery and in a game situation and work on my command, that was my main emphasis today."
After retiring the side in the first, Nola had a long conversation with home plate umpire Sean Barber. The second batter he faced, Bryan Reynolds, grounded out to first base and Nola hustled over to cover the bag. He wanted to know after the inning from Barber whether the clock resets if the pitcher asks for a new ball after making the play at first. Pitchers have a 15-second window to deliver a pitch with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners aboard.
"I'll have to re-confirm but I think the clock still goes no matter if you get the ball and throw it around the horn or if you get the ball from the umpires, it still keeps running after you touch first base," Nola said.
Opinions have been mixed in camp. Some think the pitch clock rules benefit pitchers. Some think it hurts pitchers. Mets ace Max Scherzer expressed this week how much he enjoys the pitch clock because of the power it gives a pitcher. They can dictate the pace.
"It just depends if you get on the rubber early enough and you kinda hold the ball however long you want to," Nola said. "I think the more we do it and get in game situations, pitch with it and get used to it, we'll be able to kind of have an internal clock."
It's a huge year for the Phillies and a huge year for Nola, who is set to become a free agent after the season. His eventual contract could be similar to the six-year, $162 million deal Carlos Rodon signed with the Yankees over the offseason. Why wouldn’t it be?
Nola led all major-league pitchers last season in strikeout-to-walk ratio and in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement metric. He had a 3.25 ERA over 32 starts, the fourth straight non-shortened season he's made at least that many. He leads the majors in innings pitched since 2018 and has done so with a 3.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.4 walks.
Nola's taken for granted by a portion of the Phillies' fanbase -- especially prior to conquering his September demons in 2022 -- but if this sort of pitcher was on another team and became a free agent, fans in every city would be on board with adding him.
Closing in on his 30th birthday, Nola's not a kid anymore. He's now the grizzled veteran pitcher that someone like 19-year-old Andrew Painter can turn to for advice.
Painter makes his Grapefruit League debut on Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers. Everyone's eager to see him take the mound, including Nola.
"I'm excited to see him pitch in a game," Nola said. "I found out he was 19 this year, which is pretty cool. He doesn't act like he's 19, which is a credit to him, handles himself well. He's a lot more ahead than I was.
"I'm always available if he wants to ask anything. Whenever he makes his debut, a lot of us were in that same position. That was one thing when I came up, getting longer in my career, I always wanted to be accessible to any young guy. I don't want anybody in here scared to talk to the older guys and I don't think there are."
Zack Wheeler starts Tuesday against the Blue Jays in Clearwater. The Phillies are on the road at Fort Myers Wednesday and Thursday to face the Twins and Red Sox. Painter goes Wednesday, Falter Thursday.
Ranger Suarez will throw a simulated game Thursday. Suarez (Venezuela) and Taijuan Walker (Mexico) are leaving around March 5-6 to play in the World Baseball Classic so they aren’t on the same program as the other starters.