Aaron Nola recently provided a glimpse inside the mindset that has keyed his relatively rapid ascension from the seventh pick in the 2014 amateur draft to rising ace of the surprising Philadelphia Phillies.
Earlier this month, the 24-year-old right-hander started a run of three straight starts in which he’s gone at least six innings while giving up two runs or fewer, when he allowed just three hits and retired the final 10 batters he faced over eight in a 6-1 win over the Reds.
“Just keep focusing on command and attack to get early outs,” he told the Associated Press.
It was a fitting explanation considering how Nola has managed to post a 2.28 ERA over his last eight starts dating to last September. Only Justin Verlander (1.36), Corey Kluber (1.46), Charlie Morton (1.90), teammate Nick Pivetta (2.00) and Carlos Carrasco (2.26) have lower ERAs among those with at least eight starts over that span.
But Nola doesn’t necessarily draw the same attention as hurlers like Verlander, Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer, probably in part because of his lack of overpowering stuff. While he’s been known to reach back and hit 94 mph, Nola’s fastball averages 91.5 – not as intimidating as Syndergaard (97.3), Strasburg (95.2), Verlander (94.6) or even Scherzer (93.6).
Instead, Nola just keeps “focusing on command” to get results – and STATS Pitch Intent can measure just how good he’s been in that area. STATS uses its TVL data – which tracks pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L) – to establish zones where the catcher is setting up and measures the inches between that marker and where the pitch is actually thrown.
STATS Pitch Intent aims to provide a more accurate view of command than other metrics because it doesn’t just look at who’s able to hit the corners for strikes. It tracks which pitchers are better at hitting their spots everywhere (including balls), a concept we viewed as seriously lacking in the current analytics landscape. This is particularly important since the percentage of pitches resulting in strikes has gone down in each of the past four seasons as hurlers try to avoid being victimized in this live ball era.
And Nola is a great example of this as he entered this week ranked in the top 25 in all of baseball (min. 300 pitches) in average miss-plus, which indicates how much above the league average he is in terms of hitting his intended target.
So Nola is not only adept at locating pitches in the zone, but – as silly as it sounds – he’s also really good at throwing balls. This is how he often uses a devastating breaking ball that’s considered one of the best in the game.
Using the analytics tab on STATS Video Solution (SVS), which allows teams, players and media to easily search video of any pitch thrown during an entire season with filters for particular matchups or game situations, we can find that 46.2 percent of Nola’s 143 curveballs this season have come when he’s been ahead in the count. The pitch chart below reveals that many of them are out of the zone, particularly low and in to a left-hander and low and away to a righty. But this doesn’t mean he’s been wild – it seems to be right where he wants it to be.
Nola has gotten batters to chase on 46 percent of the breaking balls (chase meaning those out of the zone), resulting in 12 strikeouts and only three hits or a .143 opponent batting average.
The numbers can back just how good he can be using this tactic, as he entered the week seventh in all of baseball in STATS Pitch Intent on curveballs (see below). This is particularly impressive when considering that breaking balls are the most difficult pitch to command, according to STATS Pitch Intent data. As one might expect, it’s easiest to hit a target with a fastball.
”He knows himself so well,” Philadelphia manager Gabe Kapler said of Nola. ”He knows he’s a command guy. He’s going to command all four quadrants of the strike zone with three pitches. There’s very few guys who can spot up with the fastball, curve and changeup. The way he changes speeds is really spectacular and his presence on the mound really stands out from a lot of the guys in baseball.”
But hitting your spots doesn’t always equal success, and stuff certainly can make a difference. Consider STATS Pitch Intent leader Kyle Hendricks, whose 2.99 career earned-run average entering Wednesday ranks fourth among all active pitchers with 75 or more starts, trailing only Clayton Kershaw’s 2.37, Jacob deGrom’s 2.96 and Chris Sale’s 2.96.
Because his fastball usually maxes out in the high 80s, the Cubs right-hander has to rely on deception and movement as he doesn’t have the margin for error of a Strasburg, Verlander or Scherzer. So even though Hendricks has an eye-opening average miss-plus of 19.9 through four starts, his stuff hasn’t been good as he’s 13th from the bottom of MLB in swing and miss percentage (18.4). Hendricks’ changeup, considered one of the best in baseball, has still proven effective as opponents are hitting just .148 against it, but they’re also batting .250 when he throws his four-seam fastball, .319 versus his two-seamer and .333 off his curveball.
On the flip side, new Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole has not been great so far in terms of Pitch Intent with an average miss-plus of minus-1, but he’s still enjoying the best start of his career. Through five starts, Cole ranks seventh in baseball with 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings and ninth with a 32.9 swing and miss percentage. Cole is getting away with missing spots due to some outstanding stuff – and he said he’s learned to be OK with that.
“That’s been huge for me,” Cole recently told the Sporting News. “You don’t have to dot up as much (with the Astros), so it’s freed me up to just attack.”
Albeit a smaller sample size with one of his four starts cut short by a blister, Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani is using his split-fingered fastball in a similar fashion to coax batters into chasing pitches out of the zone. His approach may seem a lot like how Nola uses his curveball, but the Angels right-hander isn’t concerned with hitting his spots as much as diving it out of the zone after they’ve seen his upper 90s fastball.
With a minus-12.8 average miss-plus, Ohtani ranks far behind STATS Pitch Intent leaders Chasen Shreve (19.2) and Masahiro Tanaka (15.7) when throwing a splitter. Still, he’s yet to give up a hit on any of the 103 splitters he’s thrown while generating a 43 percent chase rate and a 59 percent swing-and-miss rate despite the majority coming in below the zone.
Here’s a glimpse at what Ohtani’s pitch chart looks like on splitters:
STATS Pitch Intent can help us get a handle on which hurlers might be relying mostly on just nasty stuff (like Ohtani and his splitter), and those who probably should get credit for being able to command pitches both in and out of the strike zone.