By Connor Thomas
Yesterday, in a rubber match with a series on the line against the St. Louis Cardinals, Aaron Nola was completely dominant on the mound for the Phillies for the first time this year. Yes, he had a great opening day start against the Atlanta Braves, but it was nowhere near the level of his complete game shutout effort that he turned in against the Cards on Sunday afternoon. Through his 9 full innings of work he struck out 10, walked none, and only allowed 2 hits, both singles. Believe it or not, for the man who finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting in 2018, and has had a successful 5+ year career in the majors, this was his first 9 inning complete game (he had 2 7 inning CGs last year) and, of course, also his first shutout. It’s a wild stat considering Nola’s dominance at times, but finally yesterday the Phils #1 starter did what #1 starters are expected to do. The question now turns to the rest of the season, and where the Phillies “ace” goes from here.
Yes, I put ace in quotations there. I personally believe that Aaron Nola has been an MLB ace, and though he has had a rough couple of starts so far this year, yesterday to me showed his ace stuff was back.
— Connor Thomas (@ConnorThomas975) April 18, 2021
But my beliefs and reality unfortunately do not always coincide. Which Nola will we be most likely to see the remainder of the season? Will it be the end of last season, 3 losses in a row to end out a stretch where the team desperately needed a win? Or was yesterday the seal breaker that leads to a season of dominance. Let’s take a look at Nola’s first 4 starts of each of his full seasons in the majors to see if a prediction can be made.
Since 2016 – Nola’s first full season in the major leagues – the Phillies’ hurler has never gone better than 2-1 in his first 4 starts, though he’s done that twice, in 2017 and 2020. 2019 was his best record start at 1-0, but his three no decisions were all losses. 2016 was his worst at 1-2 (though the Phillies only averaged 2.75 runs in those 4 games), and 2018 was smack dab in the middle at 1-1 through 4 games. For the 2021 season, Nola sits at 2-1, a record through his first 4 starts that matches his best start to a season so far in his career. Remember, he could very well be 3-1 right now if he had just made it through 5 innings against the Mets in a blowout 8-2 win. Yes, it’s a stretch to say that because through 4 of what should be around 33 starts he has made his best start to a season yet. But the main takeaway from those numbers is that Nola has not historically been a very strong starter, and he still very much has the ability to put up monster numbers despite some struggles so far this season.
The better trend is how Nola usually performs through his next 5 starts. In starts 5-9 of his full seasons with the Phillies, Nola has gone 11-6 on his personal record, and the Phillies have gone 13-7 in those games including Nola’s no decisions. What this shows us is that #27 is just turning into a stretch of the season where he starts hitting his stride, and he just put together his best start in his entire career. That lends to the idea that when he hits his usual starts 5-9 run, he may be even more dominant than he has already been in the past 5 seasons during that time frame.
Is Nola a clear cut ace right now? I don’t think it’s fair to say either yes or no. Partially because Zack Wheeler has been so good since coming to Philadelphia last year and is in contention for the same title, and partially because Nola still has to exorcise some late season demons once the summer passes. But anyone who watched what the Phillies’ #1 arm did against a solid Cardinals lineup yesterday and completely denies the notion of Nola’s ace ability simply does not know baseball. And if you’re one of those that’s still on the fence on the issue, the numbers show that over the next month or so, he’ll grab the reins of the staff and return to the 2018 ace that we have longed for over the past 2 seasons.