SAN FRANCISCO — Aaron Nola digested his worst start in at least five years, if not his major-league career, by rewatching it after he came out of the game.
At least it didn’t take long.
Nola threw all of 66 pitches Saturday against the Giants; 11 were put in play, six for hits, two for home runs. He faced 15 batters; nine reached base. He recorded seven outs, fewer than in any of his 154 career starts.
And, for whatever else happened to the Phillies last weekend in the Bay Area, nothing was as consequential as the continued struggles of their No. 1 starter since 2017. Because, if they are going to end a nine-year playoff drought, they need Nola to be, well, Nola-like.
So rather than pretending Saturday’s start never happened, Nola pressed play and tried to make heads or tails of all that went wrong.
“Yeah, I watched it yesterday,” he said Sunday morning after long tossing in the outfield at Oracle Park. “I saw my fastball command wasn’t good at all. Everything stems off fastball command. So, yeah, flush that and get going this week. Have a good week and get ready for next start.”
Nola is scheduled to pitch Friday in New York against the division-leading Mets. Through 15 starts, he has a 4.22 ERA. In 11 starts since his two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout of the Cardinals on April 18 at Citizens Bank Park, he has posted a 5.04 ERA and completed seven innings only twice. He hasn’t had back-to-back quality starts since the first week of May.
Fastball command has been a challenge for Nola, particularly in the last six weeks. It isn’t that he’s throwing fewer strikes. His walk rate (5.9%) is actually at a career-low level. He just isn’t missing as many bats, and, more specifically, as many barrels. Hitters have barreled 6.8% of his pitches, an increase from 5.4% last year, 6.6% in 2019, 4.6% in his Cy Young-worthy 2018 season, and 5.3% for his career.
Nola hasn’t had his usual feel for his sinker. But, although he’s throwing it less than last year, his use of the pitch is consistent with 2018 and 2019. And only because pitchers’ widespread use of sticky substances is a pressing issue lately, it’s worth noting that the spin rate on Nola’s four-seam fastball and curveball has remained consistent from start to start and year over year.
More than anything, Nola chalks up his issues to mechanics. After holding the Yankees to three hits in 7⅔ innings on June 13 at Citizens Bank Park, his lone quality start this month, he said he was able to stay over the rubber more, which enabled him to backspin his fastball better and achieve more downward action on his curveball. He thought he unlocked something that would carry over to his start against the Giants.
Instead, Nola thought he was “pulling” his fastball back over the middle of the plate, a sign to him that perhaps his arm was moving more quickly than the rest of his body through his delivery.
“I hate to say I figured something out because you never figure things out in this game,” Nola said. “I always try to get the delivery on the right spot where I can throw all pitches for strikes and quality strikes. I keep on working at it. I think it’s just kind of repetition and just kind of getting my delivery in sync again.”
With more balls being put in play against Nola, he has at times been a victim of the Phillies’ poor defense. Opponents are batting .320 on balls in play compared to .283 last season, .297 in 2019, and .254 in 2018.
But, in 2021, when a good pitcher falters for several consecutive starts, it’s fair to wonder if his struggles are related to fatigue after the 60-game schedule last year. Nola has made three more starts and thrown 14 more innings than he did in 2020.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi has suggested that pitchers who are accustomed to throwing 200 innings may have an easier time readjusting to a full season. Since the outset of 2018, no major-league pitcher has made more starts than Nola (94). Only Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke have topped his innings total (571⅓).
But Girardi and pitching coach Caleb Cotham aren’t ignoring the possible toll of a sizable workload increase. They took advantage of the Phillies’ light June schedule and gave Nola six days’ rest before his June 8 start against the Braves. When he wasn’t sharp, they started him on his usual four days’ rest against the Yankees. He was on five days’ rest against the Giants and is scheduled for the same before he faces the Mets.
“To be honest, it just feels like a normal season again,” Nola said. “It feels like 2019. I don’t know if people thought they were going to be tired after passing their [2020 innings] mark. I don’t think many guys are.”
So Nola presses onward, trying to iron out his delivery and regain the command of his fastball that will enable him to be sharper with his off-speed pitches.
“We’ve got a long season, a lot more pitching left to do,” Nola said. “Staying healthy is the main key. I believe if I stay healthy, if you’re in a bad stretch, things will always turn around. I always believe in that.”
The Phillies have to hope it’s more than just wishful thinking.