Heading into the 2021 MLB season, there were a few “givens” when it came to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bryce Harper was going to hit a lot of home runs, J.T. Realmuto would play like the best catcher in baseball, Zack Wheeler would be solid (he’s been way better than solid), and Aaron Nola would pitch like an “Ace.”
Now possessing a 4.06 ERA following last night’s outing against Atlanta (where he allowed four runs to score in just 5.0 innings of work), it’s pretty safe to say that Nola has not been living up to his end of the bargain. In fact, with Wheeler churning out some of the best performances we’ve seen from a Phillies pitcher since the late Roy Halladay was in town, Nola’s “Ace” status is beginning to come under question altogether (we’ll leave that discussion for another day).
So what gives? While Nola hasn’t been a perfect pitcher by any stretch of the imagination since debuting for the Phillies way back in 2015, he’s still someone who’s consistently seen himself ranked among the top arms in the National League. His 2018 near Cy Young form might not be repeatable, but his 2019 and 2020 stat-lines were still comparable to that of other #1 starters around baseball.
Philadelphia Phillies RHP Aaron Nola just can’t seem to figure things.
Nola got off to a hot start here in 2021, recording his first career complete game shutout on April 18th against the St. Louis Cardinals. Since then, he’s yet to record a scoreless outing, and has failed to pitch past 5.0 innings on four different occasions. Nola’s ERA since that CGSO is a 4.97, and the Phillies have a win-loss record of 3-6 in games started by Nola during said timeframe.
Part of it can be attributed to the Philadelphia Phillies abysmal defense, as Nola has undoubtedly been hurt by the lack of fielding prowess behind him. There’s been plenty of instances where balls put in play that should have resulted in outs, simply did not.
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However, one can’t chalk all of Nola’s failures up to the team’s below average defense, especially when it seemingly hasn’t bothered Wheeler to nearly as great of an extent.
Nola’s fastball command in particular is something that stands out to me when watching him – he looks completely unconfident when using it. The Braves recorded an average exit velocity of 103.3(!) off Nola’s fastball on Tuesday night, which really signals that something is wrong there.
In addition, Nola has had a downright miserable time during the first inning of ballgames this season. It could be a purely mental thing, or it could be a tactic that opposing teams are employing due to something that Nola does physically early on in starts. Either way, constantly putting your offense in a hole is no way to win a ballgame:
For what it’s worth, June has historically been a bit of a “yikes” month for Nola. His career ERA during June sits just under 5.00, and then plummets back down to the high 2.00s once July and August arrive. However, that doesn’t really explain Nola’s May struggles this season, as that’s typically a month he does quite well in (3.01 career ERA).
On a purely fundamental level, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something isn’t quite right with the fastball. Nola hasn’t been able to locate it consistently, and it’s led to him avoiding it altogether, or just forcing it right down the middle (which results in some really hard contact). Getting that fixed would likely eliminate some of these early-inning troubles.
On a more somber note, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Philadelphia Phillies right-hander dealing with some sort of nagging injury. Fingers crossed that’s not the case, but it would certainly explain his recent run of shockingly bad form.