The Phillies Need Aaron Nola to Regain his 2018 Form to Contend

Aaron Nola has shown that he’s capable of being the anchor of a starting rotation at the big-league level. But the Philadelphia Phillies desperately need the 26-year-old to regain his 2018 form to contend for the National League pennant.

The Phillies sent Nola to the hill for their series opener with the San Diego Padres Monday night in Petco Park, and it was another discouraging outing for the right-hander. Surrendering eight hits, six earned runs, and three walks in 5.1 innings, he severely assisted the Phillies in dropping their fifth consecutive game.

Unfortunately for Nola, this has been the theme of his 2019 campaign. In 13 starts, Nola has recorded a 4.63 ERA and career-worse 1.53 WHIP while surrendering 11 home runs. Only one of those outings have featured him pitching through the seventh inning. Ironically, Nola is getting tremendous run support, as he currently sports a 6-1 record, but it proves how the statistic is extremely misleading in 2019.

In 2018, Nola finished with a 2.37 ERA (which was fourth in Major League Baseball) and 0.97 WHIP while totaling 224 strikeouts. In 15 of his 33 outings, he pitched seven or more innings while recording an insane 10.5 Baseball-Reference WAR. Nola’s efforts resulted in him finishing as a finalist for the NL Cy Young Award behind Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer — who are perceived, by some, as the two best pitchers in the sport.

Aaron Nola had a career year in 2018, but has been awful through 13 starts this season. The @Phillies ace needs to return to his previous for Philly to have a pennant chance, @RPStratakos says.Click To Tweet

Nola has a basic pitching arsenal (fastball, curveball, changeup), but he hits the high 90s on his fastball and has a deceiving delivery; you don’t always have to possess five offerings to be an elite pitcher. The issue for Nola is his offerings are being tattooed this season.

Yes, the Phillies have an elite lineup which features the likes of Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Maikel Franco, but manager Gabe Kapler‘s pitching staff, as a whole, has been this team’s Achilles heel in recent memory.

Outside of Zach Eflin, who owns a rotation-best 3.02 ERA, the Phillies starting rotation is a guessing game. In the six starts he has made, Nick Pivetta has recorded a 6.14 ERA and 1.60 WHIP; Vince Velasquez owns a 4.67 ERA and 1.59 WHIP; Jerad Eickhoff has been respectable, but not to the point where it offsets the struggles of the aforementioned arms; to an extent, you could argue Jake Arrieta isn’t performing up to his, on average, $25 million salary, as he’s surrendering a lot of baserunners and not giving the Phillies the production they envisioned.

The last thing the Phillies need is for their ace to struggle. Based on how Pivetta and Velasquez have continually been unable to turn a corner and Arrieta has been underwhelming in his 15 months with the organization, you can’t expect heroics from any of the three; Nola is supposed to make up for that. He’s everything the modern-day baseball landscape loves: a hard-thrower who totals a lot of strikeouts and has a unique delivery. Every team needs an ace, or dominant pitcher to send to the hill in a big game, and Nola needs to be that echelon of a starter for the Phillies.

You can see the talent, but when someone of his makeup is off their game, it can be disastrous. With a bullpen devoid of consistency and lockdown relievers, the Phillies need their starters to give them six innings a start, and Nola should be pitching even deeper into games than that. But he’s laboring through at-bats, surrendering baserunners at an alarming rate, and, bigger than those two developments, showing signs of regression.

Despite their rotation’s struggles the Phillies are still a plausible 34-27 and holding onto first place in the NL East. At the same time, finishing six-to-eight games above .500 isn’t going to get it done in their division.

The Braves have been playing much better over the last few weeks, have a deep lineup, an evolving rotation, and are the defending NL East champions. Meanwhile, while they’re not currently playoff threats, the New York Mets and Washington Nationals are competitive ballclubs; the Mets have a stout rotation and a lineup capable of hitting their way back into games; the Nationals have a high-profile rotation, as well as a lineup that’s waking up.

The Phillies went into this season with high hopes, but they weren’t — and still aren’t the team to beat in the NL; they’re too flawed. Last season they finished 80-82, and it’s feasible to believe they can improve their win total by double digits, but it’s reliant on their stars playing to their capabilities; that includes everybody.

Harper and Hoskins must garner consistency; Segura and Realmuto have to be their steady-hitting selves; Arrieta has to pitch better, and Nola has to continue to be a workhorse. Out of those six players Nola was arguably the least likely to have a drop-off based on the yearly improvement in his game, last season in particular.

Right now the Phillies aren’t a pennant threat. The Los Angeles Dodgers have no weakness; the Chicago Cubs have experience and are a potent backend reliever away from being invincible; we could argue that the Milwaukee Brewers are better equipped than the Phillies to make the postseason, or a late-season push given their depth.

The Phillies have the talent to, at some point, pose such a threat, but Nola can’t be pitching at a subpar level, or become a hit and miss starter; he and Arrieta are supposed to be an elite pitching duo. Instead, they’ve been an enormous disappointment.

Nola is a better pitcher than this; just look at his production over the last two seasons. He has superb command, deceiving pitches, and is an elite talent. With that said, he has to turn things around, or the Phillies once promising season could have a startling end result; he’s that pivotal.

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