CLEARWATER, Fla. – Changeups are good, Aaron Nola declared on the day the Phillie Phanatic officially unveiled his new look before the furry green mascot’s favorite team played its spring-training home opener at Spectrum Field.
Nola, the Phillies’ ace, was not talking about the Phanatic’s altered tail color, starry-eyed surgical alteration or trimmed-down waistline. He wasn’t talking about his new giant red shoes or blue socks either.
“I didn’t even see him, honestly,” Nola said after he made his Grapefruit League debut with two scoreless innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I was warming up."
Nola’s reference to changeups was about his own pitching. The 26-year-old right-hander was brilliant two seasons ago when he finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting, but merely good last season after getting off to a ragged April start.
“I didn’t get ahead and I didn’t throw my changeup in an even count for strikes as much as I did the year before,” Nola said. “When I had a 1-1 count and threw a changeup it would go to 2-1 and when it was 1-0 it would go to 2-0. I think that was the separator [between the two seasons]. I think when I’m throwing everything for strikes I have three pitches that I can beat you with and that’s my main focus every year.”
The numbers tell a distinctive story about Nola. According to baseballreference.com, hitters were ahead in the count against him 251 times in 2019 compared to 210 times the year before. Add in the fact that he allowed 53 more baserunners – 27 more hits, 22 more walks and four more hit batters – and it’s easy to figure out why his earned run average went from 2.37 in 2018 to 3.87 in 2019.
“Last year I wasn’t as consistent in the zone,” Nola said. “Every year is not going to be really good and every year is not going to be really bad. That’s the beauty of the game. It’s the most inconsistent game. There is always work that needs to be done.”
That, of course, is why they have spring training, and the good news for Phillies fans is that Nola feels as though the command of his changeup will be back in 2020.
“It has felt really good,” Nola said. "It has felt like it should. I just want to fill up the strike zone and keep the ball down a lot this spring. That’s kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate. I had some starts where it all worked, but I felt like I used my curveball a lot more in the middle and late in the season. My changeup wasn’t as consistent as it was in previous years. I am just trying to get back to throwing it down for strikes more.”
The Pirates sent their Seinfeld lineup at Nola Sunday with [Kevin] Newman batting first and [Kevin] Kramer hitting second, but there were no runs for them. Newman led off the game with a single, but was quickly erased when Kramer hit into a 6-4-3 double play that was nicely started by new shortstop Didi Gregorius.
“I don’t want to throw too hard early in the count,” Nola said. “I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that. I got a double-play grounder and that’s satisfying.”
Nola’s turbulent April last season left him with a 6.84 ERA after five starts, but from April 25 on, he had a 3.45 ERA in 29 starts, which was tied for 20th best in baseball.
Perhaps that’s why new manager Joe Girardi only has one concern about Nola.
“To me, I think the most important thing is he leaves camp healthy,” Girardi said. “If he leaves camp healthy, I’m going to feel good about the year he’s going to have, whether he has a slow start or a fast start. There’s usually a period where a pitcher will struggle a little bit during the course of a season like any other player. But he’s really pretty consistent.”
Nola showed remarkable aplomb during his turbulent start last season and has never been one to question his own confidence.
“I think if we lose confidence, we’re pretty screwed,” Nola said. “That’s especially true in the major leagues because the game can speed up on you real quick. I always know what I can do and what I needed to work on. I always believed [last year] that things would change in the right direction if I just kept making quality pitches and commanded the ball.”
As for the Phillies’ furry green mascot, the crowd at Spectrum Field seemed to embrace the off-season makeover.
“I was afraid it was going to be a green Gritty,” one fan said before the game.