Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola is not an ace, because he stinks in September. Nola is not an ace because he cannot pitch well against good teams. The Phillies righty is not worthy of a big contract extension because he will never be a true ace starting pitcher.
These are actual statements that I have seen made on social media regarding the Philadelphia Phillies now 29-year-old starting pitcher. I’m about to explode all of those ignorant, misinformed, and just plain wrong statements.
It won’t be enough to convince most of those keyboard warriors who have vented and lashed out against the Phillies star on the internet and on sports talk radio. I doubt anything will ever convince them of how wrong they are, not even if he has a solid September this year and helps lead the club into the postseason.
But for the majority of Phillies and baseball fans, those who are open-minded and willing to learn the facts, well, this should suffice.
Let’s take each argument one at a time, shall we?
1) Aaron Nola stinks in September
Here are Nola’s September performances during each full season of his career 2017-2021:
2017: Five starts, 3.86 ERA, 31 Hits over 30.1 IP, 43/9 K:BB
2018: Six starts, 3.72 ERA, 26 Hits over 36.1 IP, 47/11 K:BB
2019: Five starts, 6.51 ERA, 29 Hits over 27.2 IP, 35/16 K:BB
2020: Six starts, 3.57 ERA, 30 Hits over 35.1 IP, 48/14 K:BB
2021: Six starts, 6.19 ERA, 34 Hits over 32 IP, 42/6 K:BB
Now let’s break it down a bit.
Even his harshest critics would have to admit that there was nothing wrong with his overall performances during the season’s final month in 2017, 2018, and 2020. He allowed just 87 hits over 102 innings with a 138/34 strikeout/walk ratio cumulatively during those Septembers.
And let’s examine last year. Nola had two stinkers in September. On September 2nd in Washington he allowed six runs on six hits over just four innings. Exactly three weeks later in his penultimate start of the year at home on September 23rd against Pittsburgh, Nola again allowed six runs on six hits, this time over six innings.
The thing is, the Phillies won both of those games. Nola’s subpar performances didn’t cost the team anything. In his other four outings the righty was strong, allowing 22 hits over 22 innings with a 29/3 K:BB ratio.
The bad reputation that Nola carries for poor September performances began from what was his one truly poor final month back in 2019.
Nola’s took the mound for his first outing of that month on September 4th with the club just three games behind the Chicago Cubs for the second and final NL Wildcard postseason berth. He entered the month having dominated during a dozen starts across July and August: 6-2, 2.52 ERA, .192 BAA, 54 hits over 78.2 IP with an 84/26 K:BB ratio.
The righty surrendered five earned runs that night on five hits across just four innings in what was an 8-5 loss. Nola then gave up four runs on six hits while also walking four batters across six innings in his next outing, a 7-2 home loss to Atlanta. He bounced back to dominate Boston five days later, allowing just four hits while striking out nine over seven innings. But the Phillies offense failed to produce in a 2-1 defeat to the Bosox.
In his final two outings, Nola allowed 10 combined earned runs on 14 hits and six walks across 10.2 innings leading to narrow 5-4 and 6-5 losses to division rivals Atlanta and Washington. The Phillies finished at .500 that year, 16 behind the NL East-winning Braves and eight games out of a Wildcard berth.
So, Aaron Nola mostly stunk in September 2019. He had two poor outings in September 2021 – with the one against Pittsburgh actually being just a single poor inning.
Nola simply does not “stink in September” at all. He had one poor September, a couple poor outings in another.
2) Aaron Nola can’t beat good teams
This year’s National League postseason contending teams are the Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Brewers, and Dodgers. How has he fared?
Nola has seen the New York Mets a lot this year. Five starts in all. In the middle three of those, coming late April, early May, and mid-August, Nola was strong: 21 IP, four hits, five runs, 24/2 K:BB. He had a poor outing on April 13, his second start of the year, and again last week on August 19th. The Mets are tied at 81-46 for the second best mark in all of baseball. I’d say he has competed pretty well against them this season.
At 87-37, the Dodgers are a full 50 games over the .500 mark with the best record in baseball. Nola has two starts against them. At Los Angeles on May 15, he allowed just two runs on four hits with eight strikeouts over seven innings. The bullpen combo of Jeurys Familia and Corey Knebel blew that one, surrendering three runs over the final two frames. In his other at home, Mookie Betts and Will Smith got to him, ruining an otherwise solid outing. Again, the bullpen blew the game.
In addition, Nola has dominated Milwaukee in his two starts against the Brew Crew. He made only a couple of costly mistakes that cost him at Saint Louis on July 11. Nola beat the Braves in late May and again in late June, got beat by them in late July.
The Dodgers have been the best team in the NL for a decade. Nola is 2-0 with a 3.57 ERA and 49/11 K:BB, allowing 27 hits against Los Angeles over 40.1 innings in his five starts against them.
In 28 career starts against the always tough division rival Braves, Nola is 14-9 with a 3.43 ERA, allowing 151 hits across 175.2 innings with a 167/48 K:BB.
Against the Mets, he is 9-7 with a 3.30 ERA, allowing 119 hits over 144.2 innings with a 185/45 K:BB ratio.
And against always difficult Saint Louis, Nola is 5-3 with a 2.69 ERA, allowing 37 hits over 60.1 innings with a 66/11 K:BB mark.
To imply that Aaron Nola cannot and does not beat good teams is simply false, and ridiculous.
3) Nola will never be a true ace
Not only is this one untrue, it is false in its premise simply because Nola is already an ace.
Let’s start, however, by defining what an ace is and is not. An ace is NOT necessarily a Hall of Fame pitcher. An ace also is not necessarily even the best starting pitcher on a particular team. The 2011 Phillies, for example, had at least three pitchers, arguably four, who qualified as aces.
An ace also does not have to be a 20-game winner or have a bunch of all-star appearances. Winning games is largely dependent on team performance, and the all-stars are selected based on a half-season of performances, with players often passed over due to team performance, the all-star worthy performance of others on their own team, etc.
A pitcher may have been an ace at one time in his career but now has faded to just being a solid competitive arm. Think of Pedro Martinez in 2009 and Roy Oswalt in 2011 with the Phillies. Clearly aces at one time, but no longer by those seasons.
What an ace is, is one of the top starting pitchers in the game on a consistent basis over a few seasons continuing to the present time.
An ace gets recognized by the game’s expert evaluators and his peers as such during recent seasons. Aaron Nola finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2018 and then seventh in the 2020 NL Cy Young vote.
Another thing that does characterize an ace is that they are generally durable, available to their team. Nola is about to surpass 30 starts for the fourth time in five years, only missing out in 2020 due to the COVID-shortened campaign in which he made every one of the 12 starts for which he was called upon. He led the NL in starts in 2019 and led all of baseball in the number of batters faced that year.
Over parts of eight seasons in Major League Baseball, Nola has made 196 starts. For the last six years, Nola has taken the mound nearly every turn. He has allowed fewer hits (1,022) while striking out more batters (1,330) than innings pitched (1,190) and sports a career 4.17 K/BB ratio.
A true ace shows up high on the statistical leader boards. This season, Nola leads the league in K:BB ratio with an unreal 8.41 and in fewest walks-per-game with his 1.2 mark. His ranks in all of MLB for this season show him at second in innings and starts, fourth in strikeouts, ninth in K/9, fourth in WHIP, 21st in ERA, 16th in Quality Starts, second in WAR.
Aaron Nola is clearly one of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball. Aaron Nola is clearly an ace.
See you in September, Aaron
Nola will get one more August start out in Arizona next week, and then the calendar turns to September 2022. Especially after my writing this piece up, there will be some fans of the team – who allegedly hope to see them win – who will genuinely be hoping that Nola poops the bed. They would rather be seen as “right” on Nola than have him come through for the ball club.
My bet is that they will be wrong. I am betting on Aaron Nola, the co-ace of the Philadelphia Phillies starting pitching rotation along with Zack Wheeler, to enjoy a solid if not strong month of September, helping the Phillies to nail down their first postseason berth in a decade.
Whatever happens during the latest installment of ‘Red October’ postseason baseball, it would be wise of Phillies club president Dave Dombrowski to sit down with Nola and his reps in the coming off-season and get the pitcher’s name on a long-term contract extension. The club holds a final $16 million option for next year after which Nola is scheduled to become a free agent.
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola is an ace. I believe that he is going to prove it this September to even his harshest critics. Nola is an ace because he not only can pitch well against good teams, but has proven it by actually doing it.
The Phillies righty is not only worthy of a big contract extension as a true ace, but especially with two or three strong young prospect arms due to arrive in the next year or two, the team needs him fronting their rotation over the next half-dozen years.