Aaron Nola passes the eye test.
If you watch the Phillies regularly, you know Nola’s a stud, an ace, a horse — all those old-school baseball words thrown around to describe the best pitchers in the game apply to the Phillies’ 25-year-old righty.
With performances like his eight innings of shutout ball against the Nationals Thursday afternoon, he looks like a Cy Young award winner. But how strong of a chance does Nola have at being the first Phillie to earn Cy Young honors since Roy Halladay in 2010?
Right now, it looks like Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom are the two other main Cy Young contenders. No other pitcher seems to have a realistic case when you look at traditional or advanced statistics.
Scherzer is 16-6 with a 2.13 ERA. He leads the NL in wins, innings, strikeouts, strikeout to walk ratio and WHIP. He’s also first in a number of advanced stats, including Win Probability Added and Adjusted Pitching Runs.
Unfortunately for Scherzer, the Nationals have been a disappointment, to put it mildly. Even after taking two of three over the Phillies, the Nats are 64-64, 8 1/2 games back in the NL East.
Whether or not you believe team success should be a key factor in determining the Cy Young winner is an important question, especially when looking at deGrom’s candidacy.
If deGrom wins, it will be in spite of his Mets teammates. Despite leading the NL with a 1.71 ERA (and a 2.07 FIP), deGrom is 8-8. The Mets average just 3.65 runs per deGrom start, which is the third-worst run support for an NL starter. He may pitch for a team that’s nowhere near the playoff picture and doesn’t come close to giving him the offense he deserves, but deGrom is having a Cy Young-caliber season. All three guys are.
Nola checks just about every box.
Does he make his team significantly better?
There’s no question. Nola is 15-3, and the Phillies are 19-7 in his starts. The Phillies have only averaged 4.08 runs of support for Nola, tied for seventh-fewest in the NL, which makes that record even more impressive. In their other 101 games, the Phillies are 50-51. Nola’s BRef WAR for Pitchers is 8.9, best in the NL.
Is he dominant?
Nobody is close to Scherzer’s ridiculous 244 strikeouts, but Nola’s 169 isn’t too bad a number. His 50 percent groundball percentage is sixth in the NL. He’s allowed just eight homers in 169 innings.
Scherzer clearly has the edge if you’re just looking for a filthy arsenal of pitches, but Nola’s curveball is one of the best pitches in baseball — opponents are hitting just .182 against it, per FanGraphs.
Does he have the intangibles?
Even with all the stats at voters’ disposal, this is really what the Cy Young race might come down to. Out of three great pitchers, which one feels the most like a Cy Young award winner?
Nola just carries himself like an ace. He breezes through your lineup three times, hands the ball to Gabe Kapler, and walks off the mound — it’s no big deal to him. And on the nights when he doesn’t have his best stuff, Nola still keeps the Phillies competitive. Nola has allowed three or more earned runs in just five of his 26 starts. He hasn’t given up more than four runs in a start once this season. Nola knows the Phillies don’t have the kind of offense that’s going to gift him many wins, and he still consistently delivers.
What history tells us
Scherzer is looking for three consecutive Cy Young awards, something that hasn’t been done since Randy Johnson won four straight from 1999 through 2002.
Wins have historically been an important aspect of Cy Young voting, although Felix Hernandez’s 2010 AL Cy Young win is an encouraging recent example for deGrom. Hernandez won despite posting a 13-12 record, with a 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts.
deGrom’s current 1.71 ERA would be the lowest for a Cy Young award winner since Eric Gagne in 2003. It would be the lowest for a starter since Greg Maddux’s 1.63 ERA in 1995. Even if he finishes with a sub-.500 record, don’t count deGrom out.
At this stage, deGrom, Scherzer and Nola are all still in the race. If Aaron Nola keeps pitching like Aaron Nola and the Phillies can help him out with a few more wins and a trip to the postseason, he has as good a chance as anyone. He has another opportunity to boost his résumé Tuesday, when he'll take on Scherzer again.