Sure Aaron Nola wishes he had Noah Syndergaard’s fastball. He has stood in the batter’s box and watched Thor’s pitches zoom by him like a cheetah in the savanna.
“I hit against Syndergaard twice and it’s no joke,” the Phillies pitcher said. “That thing is coming in super fast. I mean 99 to 100, it’s no joke. But there are definitely a lot of different ways to get guys out.”
Nola, still only 24 years old and in his fourth big-league season, is in the midst of mastering the other ways. In fact, as he was recently being asked about the two New York Mets pitchers – Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom – who throw searing fastballs and cut far more imposing figures than him, one of Nola’s teammates interrupted in order to make a point.
“Check the numbers,” Jake Arrieta said.
The Phillies’ prized free-agent signing did not mean that we should examine the average speed of Nola’s fastball, which, by the way, is at a career-high 93.3 miles per hour this season, according to fangraphs.com. He meant to look at the more standard numbers like earned run average, innings pitched, hits allowed and walks allowed. It is there that you will see that Aaron Nola has figured out a way to be among the pitching elite. Heading into his start Sunday against deGrom and the Mets, Nola is 5-1 with a 2.05 ERA that is tied for seventh among major-league starters.
“There are different ways to get outs rather than throwing 95, 96, 97,” Nola said. “Yeah those guys throw hard, but I think it’s about changing speeds. If you throw a consistent speed all the time, guys are going to catch up to it. That’s just how these hitters are. They are good enough to catch up to a 100-mile-per-hour fastball if they see it enough. It would be nice to throw 97, but I physically can’t. That’s not who I have ever been. I can get it up to 94 or 95 when I need to. My thing is I want to go deep into the game every time I go out and I want to save the bullpen and have them get the least amount of outs they have to each time I’m out there.”
Nola, in other words, wants to be an innings eater and he headed into the weekend seventh in baseball with 52.2 innings pitched.
“I was impressed by him just watching him pitch from afar before I even knew him personally,” Arrieta said. “That was just based on his poise and being able to throw multiple pitches for strikes even when he is behind in the count. People forget he is only 24 years old and he is out there pitching like an ace. He never seems to be flustered or gives the impression that he is on the ropes even if things are going poorly. He is able to have that presence about him and kind of control the situation.”
Nola’s lack of an overpowering fastball is the reason he was labeled no more than a No. 3 or 4 starter even after the Phillies took him with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. A lot of teams might have passed on Nola with the seventh pick because of his radar-gun readings even though he was 23-2 with a 1.52 ERA in his last two seasons with LSU.
“The thing we really loved about him was that he threw strikes, he always worked ahead and he was an extreme competitor,” Marti Wolever said of his final first-round pick as the team’s scouting director. “I thought he’d definitely be a solid three on a good club and he might be more than that because of the way he pitched.”
Nola is more. According to baseballreference.com, his 8.0 WAR (wins above replacement) is the highest among the players taken in the 2014 draft. There are also plenty of reasons to believe that he is not only going to get better, but that he will also remain good for a long time. He is a pitcher who relies heavily on his command and his mind. This season he has added a heavier dose of changeups to a repertoire that also includes a sinker, a four-seam fastball one of the game’s nastier curveballs.
According to fangraphs.com, he has thrown his changeup 20.7 percent of the time this season, up from 15.9 percent last season. He used a heavy dose of that pitch in his last start against San Francisco because he thought the Giants would be looking more for his curveball.
“I think I’m throwing that pitch with more confidence,” Nola said. “I had a good changeup when I was in high school, but the balls were a little bit different so I changed the grip a little bit in 2016. I kind of moved a few fingers around from the way I threw it in high school, but it’s still pretty similar. I just try to focus on my arm speed and the location. I don’t focus on trying to make it move too much. If you can throw it like a fastball, that’s the key.”
Nola is killing teams softly with that pitch, while still buckling knees with his curveball and baffling hitters with his command and location. He is an artist with the baseball even if he does not have a majestic body and a mythical nickname.