2018 Breakout Candidate: Why Aaron Nola Profiles As A Top 10 Starting Pitcher

by Eric Stashin (aka The Rotoprofessor)

The Phillies’ Aaron Nola is coming off a somewhat breakout campaign, translating the 2016 underlying metrics into actual results in 2017.  While the numbers may not completely blow you away, it’s clear that the upside is there:

168.0 IP
12 Wins
3.54 ERA
1.21 WHIP
184 Strikeouts (9.86 K/9)
49 Walks (2.63 BB/9)
49.8% Groundball Rate
.309 BABIP

There was never a question about his control, with a minor league career (175.0 IP) BB/9 of 1.49.  However it was unknown if he was going to be able to develop into a strikeout artist (7.56 K/9 in the minors) and also keep the ball in the ballpark (0.99 GO/AO).  He’s answered those questions in spectacular fashion, showing that he has the potential to be among the elite.

 

Strikeouts
He’s shown a growing strikeout rate with each season in the Majors (SwStr%):

  • 2015 – 8.6%
  • 2016 – 9.6%
  • 2017 – 10.8%

The key change he made was increasing the usage of his changeup (8.51% in ’16 to 15.92% in ’17), while also reducing the usage of his sinker (43.23% to 24.06%).  It makes sense that the change helped to yield more swings and misses, and with a 10.57 K/9 (courtesy of an 11.7% SwStr%) in the second half we get an idea of just how good he can be.

 

Groundballs
Cutting down on his sinker usage will lower his ability to generate groundballs, and we did see that last season (55.2% in ’16 to last year’s 49.8%).  At the same time the increased strikeout rate helps to limit the downside.  Also his changeup has generally induced more groundballs per ball in play, with a 63.89% mark in ’16 and 66.67% in ’17 (his sinker was at 60.67% and 50.38%, respectively, over the past two seasons).

In other words, even with the reduction in his sinker usage an improvement in his rate back towards the ’16 mark on the pitch alone should help his number improve significantly.  While he may not get back to a borderline elite level, a 50+% mark seems very likely.

 

Conclusion
What exactly is there not to like?  The control has always been impressive and he’s proven that he can pair it with strikeouts and an above average groundball rate.  Now throw in pitching in the NL East, where he will get regular matchups with the Braves and Marlins, and everything looks that much better.  There’s also little reason to think that he won’t improve on his most distinct split:

  • Home – 2.98 ERA
  • Road – 4.24 ERA

On the road he struggled with a .343 BABIP (leading to a 1.43 WHIP).  It all comes together for a Top 10 pitcher, and one that should truly emerge quickly in ’18.

Sources – Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball

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Make sure to check out all of our 2018 Preseason Rankings:

Position
Standard League
OBP League
Catchers03/14/1802/02/18
First Basemen01/08/1802/09/18
Second Basemen01/15/1802/13/18
Shortstops03/21/1802/27/18
Third Basemen03/09/1803/06/18
Outfielders1-20: 03/18/18

21-40: 03/19/18
1-20: 03/12/18

21-40:
Starting Pitchers1-20: 03/24/18

21-40: 03/24/18
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Relief Pitchers02/12/18--

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