ATLANTA — Equally important as the result of the Phillies-Braves series this past weekend was another high-stress, low-quality start from Aaron Nola.
Nola just can't find a groove this season. He's made 15 starts. In his first five, he had a 6.84 ERA. In his next five, he had a 2.30 ERA, limited the homers and walks and looked like he was back to himself. Then in his last five, he has a 5.65 ERA and has walked 15 batters in 28⅔ innings.
He is not hurt. He says his body and his arm feel good. He's not pitching through pain or altering his mechanics because of an ache. He just isn't pitching well. He isn't locating his four-seam and two-seam fastballs consistently. His curveball, a pitch that has led him to success since his teenage years, has at times lacked its trademark snap and at other times hung over the plate. His changeup, a key pitch against lefties that took him to another level in 2018, has not been effective.
"I want to get it straightened out soon," Nola said after giving up five runs in 4⅓ innings to the Braves on Saturday. "I feel like I have a good start, bad start, OK start, bad start, just up and down. It's kind of how the year's been for me.
"Walks and home runs hurt me this year. I feel like getting ahead is the key for me. I haven't been doing that too much but a lot of times I'm barely missing. That's pretty much been the big thing for me."
Last season, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time, second-best in MLB behind only Miles Mikolas. This season, Nola's first-pitch strike rate is down to 58.8 percent. That ranks 64th out of 86 qualifying starters. It's a worse rate than the often wild Aaron Sanchez and barely ahead of Yu Darvish, who has struggled for two years to throw strikes.
Walks and home runs really have told the story of Nola's 2019 season. In 15 starts, he's surrendered 13 home runs. It took him 29 starts to allow 13 home runs last season.
In 81 innings, he's walked 36 batters. It took him 131 innings to walk 36 batters last season.
It will be incredibly difficult for the Phillies to win the division or advance in the postseason if Nola continues to pitch like this.
"His command hasn't been where it needs to be consistently to be the ace that we know he's going to be," manager Gabe Kapler said Saturday. "Again, I have no concerns or worries about Aaron Nola turning the corner. And when he does it's going to be fun to watch. He's going to get nothing but support from us because we know he's going to be a horse for us down the stretch and we're excited for that moment."
When will that moment come? We won't know until Nola has reeled off five, six, seven good starts in a row.
The issue would stick out even more if the Phillies' offense wasn't bailing Nola out the way it has. He is 6-1 despite a 4.89 ERA. The Phillies have gone 9-6 in his starts. Wondering why? Because they've scored 64 runs in the 81 innings he's been in the game. The only National League pitchers who have been given more run support are Milwaukee's Brandon Woodruff and Atlanta's Max Fried.
Baseball isn't like the other sports. Split-second events determine success or failure. For a pitcher, missing by an inch here, an inch there can change the complexion of a start, a month, a season. In our 2019 season previews, we were careful here to note that you couldn't just expect 2019 Nola to be 2018 Nola. It's not how it works at baseball's highest level. All the good developments do not translate from one year to next. Players have career years and then regress.
It was pretty clear that 2018 was a career year for Nola — guys just don't maintain a 2.37 ERA over 200-plus innings often. Roy Halladay, for example, had an ERA that low in only one of his 16 seasons and never in a full season had an ERA+ as good as Nola's. (ERA+ measures a pitcher's ERA relative to the league average that year. Nola's last season was 73 percent better than the league average; Halladay's career-best in a full season was 67 percent.)
The thing is, Nola right now hasn't even looked like the pitcher he was in 2017, when he had a 3.54 ERA with sterling strikeout and walk numbers. The guy is putting 1.56 men on base per inning this season.
Trade deadline acquisitions, players returning from injury ... in the long run, none of it will matter if Nola can't be a front-of-the-rotation starter.
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