The term “ace” has been handed out like chocolate on Halloween night over the past decade. Pitchers have been crowned as an ace despite never showing the skill or longevity required to own such an esteemed title. Gone are the days of pitchers like Nolan Ryan, and Satchel Paige, or that era in which there was seemingly an “ace” on every team. There is, however, one pitcher that has made his living by flying under the radar and putting up solid numbers throughout his career, without getting the attention that he definitely deserves. He is none other than, Aaron Nola: the underrated workhorse.
Aaron Nola. pic.twitter.com/BV49sjSbGA
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) May 6, 2022
Aaron Nola: The Underrated Workhorse
Aaron Nola made his Major League debut on July 21st, 2015. He did not take the world by storm upon his debut, however, he did lay a solid groundwork for what was to come. In 2015, Nola made 13 starts and pitched 77.2 innings. He put up a very solid ERA of 3.59 and carried an ERA+ of 107. Nola’s walk rate of 6% was close to his career rate of 6.5%. However, he had not developed his strikeout stuff yet and his career-low strikeout rate finished at 21.4%. This strikeout rate has followed him throughout his career, as to this day he is still widely considered to be “not a strikeout pitcher.”
The next two seasons would be shortened by injury, but they would be the last full seasons that Nola started less than 30 games. In those two seasons, Nola combined to make 47 starts. He pitched a total of 279 innings to a 4.03 ERA. Despite his ERA being above 4, his FIP was a solid 3.20 with a 106 ERA+. Nola was more of a groundball pitcher in this portion of his career as he carried a groundball rate of 51.5% across those seasons. This was during a very dark time in the Philadelphia Phillies‘ history, and being a groundball pitcher meant relying on the defense of a rebuilding team. This inflated his ERA and led to his FIP being almost a full run less.
The Cy Young Year
Enter 2018. Coming off of back-to-back seasons shortened by injury, the Phillies did not know what to expect from Aaron Nola. But boy did he deliver. For the first time in his career, Nola made 30+ starts in a single season, finishing with 33. It would be the season of firsts for Nola, in fact. The first season in which he topped 200 strikeouts (224). The first season he topped 200 innings (212.1). And the first season in which he would finish in the top 10 in Cy Young voting.
Pitching to an ERA of 2.37 is no easy feat. Pitching to a record of 17-6 in front of a still-rebuilding Phillies team is also no easy feat. But the hardest feat of all is outrunning Jacob DeGrom in a Cy Young race.
Jacob deGrom did what Jacob deGrom does in 2018: pitched like he was the only man in the world to ever throw a baseball. deGrom made 32 starts in 2018 and pitched a career-high 217 innings. He did that while striking out 269 batters and holding an ERA of 1.70. In what was Aaron Nola’s best season to date, Jacob deGrom had one of the best seasons we have seen this century! Despite leading all of baseball in bWAR (9.7), and pitching in front of a vastly inferior team, Nola would finish third in Cy Young voting in 2018. That’s not even to mention Max Scherzer finishing in second, strictly on the back of a 300-strikeout season.
Aaron Nola would miss out on a much-deserved Cy Young award. But this shot at the title would not be his only attempt. It would just serve as the opening salvo.
The Years After
In the years following 2018, and leading up to today, Nola has been nothing short of the title bestowed upon him at the outset. Aaron Nola: the underrated workhorse. Four seasons have passed since including the Covid shortened 2020 season. In that time, Nola has started 110 games and pitched to an ERA of 3.82 across 659.1 innings. He struck out 783 batters in that time and carried a FIP of 3.31 with an ERA+ of 111. In 2019, he led all of baseball in starts with 34 and led the NL in batters faced with 852. In 2020, he led all of baseball in complete games with 2. And finally, in 2022, he led baseball in shutouts with 1, his third in as many years, K/BB with an unheard of 8.10, and the NL in BB.9 with 1.3.
Despite all of the success, Nola has only been named an All-Star once in his career, in 2018. 2022 was Nola’s year yet again. In 2022, he showed the world that he was, in fact, a strikeout pitcher, but that he was also one of the game’s top control artists. Opposing hitters carried a paltry .256 OBP against Nola in 2022. A number that would get the most powerful hitter on any team DFA’d. He would fall short, yet again, in his quest for a Cy Young award, however, finishing fourth behind Julio Urias, Max Fried, and the winner, Sandy Alcantara.
The Future For Aaron Nola: The Underrated Workhorse
So what does the future hold for Aaron Nola? He is entering his age-30 season, which will also be a contract year. The Phillies have shown no hesitation to hand out big contracts of late, and Aaron Nola should receive the next one. Nola has improved his command and his stuff drastically over the years, all while flying under the radar. The 2023 season looks to be no different for Nola, and he could even make another run at the elusive Cy Young. Before all is said and done, he will have at least one to his name.
Those outside of Philadelphia have yet to appreciate the talent that Aaron Nola has. He has done more than enough to deserve the moniker of “ace.” He has done more than enough to deserve the national recognition given to his peers. But until that day comes, he will be known as Aaron Nola: The Underrated Workhorse.
Main photo credits:
Bill Streicher-USA Today Sports
Nolan Ryan, Satchel Paige, Aaron Nola, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Julio Urias, Max Fried, Sandy Alcantara
Troy Brock, Site Manager
Troy Brock has been a fan of baseball for 15+ years. At the age of 29, he has made his way from writing blog posts on Medium to listicles for LWOSports, to now serving as one of the two site managers for the esteemed Last Word on Baseball.
A loving husband and a father of one, he spends the baseball off-season playing video games with his four-year-old son or watching reality television with his wife.