Better mechanics help Phillies' Aaron Nola add juice to his fastball
Opponents have hit .226 with a .384 slugging percentage against his fastball. The quality, not just the speed, has risen.
MIAMI — When Aaron Nola went to the Phillies' complex in Florida last fall, he was not searching for a method to add power to his fastball. He just wanted to feel good again. He had generated uneasiness last summer with a 9.82 ERA in eight starts. He missed the final two months of the season because his elbow hurt.
Ray Burris, the team's rehab pitching coach, offered a suggestion. Use your legs, he told Nola. The young righthander tweaked his mechanics.
"I had to do something to take stress off my arm," Nola said. "It felt kind of weird to begin with. Then, as I kept throwing in that part of October, I felt better with it. It definitely takes more stress off my arm."
It has done more than that.
Nola will start Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, and he is an improved version of himself. His fastball, through the mechanical adjustments, has gained velocity. His change-up, a work in progress for two years, is a legitimate third pitch. His feel for in-game situations, when to attack and what to use, has improved.
It starts with the fastball.
Last season, opponents batted .315 with a .465 slugging percentage against Nola's fastball. His velocity dipped in June and July; the season average was 90.7 mph. He could not locate the fastball down in the zone as he did in the first chapter of his big-league career.
His fastball, according to Major League Baseball's pitch data, has averaged 92 mph in 2017. Opponents have hit .226 with a .384 slugging percentage against it. The quality — not just the speed — has risen.
"It's location," Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said. The mechanical changes are "allowing his arm more time to get where it's supposed to get. It allows him to use his legs. It takes pressure off his arm, which is adding velocity without really trying. It's good to see."
Nola, no doubt, remains somewhat of an injury risk. Every pitcher does. Nola last season suffered what the team described as "low-grade" sprains and strains of ligaments and tendons in his right elbow. That he has returned with a more powerful arsenal after conservative treatment methods is a bit counter-intuitive, but Nola believes he is better equipped to handle the workload of a full major-league season because of his adjustments.
No one will know until he does it. Nola, if he pitches every fifth game for the remainder of the season, would reach 27 starts.
The beginning to this season was not as consistent. He missed time with a back injury. When he was on the mound, his command was not sharp. Part of it, Nola said, was learning how to control his body with the greater emphasis on his legs. The fastball was a little faster. It required some tweaks to locate it like he did before.
And, with that, came a realization.
"I'm trying to command the ball and not throw every pitch hard," Nola said. "The beginning of the year, I was trying to throw hard more than I am now. So that's why I was a little more spotty."
Nola struck out at least six batters in each of his last eight starts. He had a 2.65 ERA in that stretch. He is able to throw his fastball less (54.5 percent) this season because his change-up has emerged. Nola tinkered with it in spring training. Now, he said, he is confident to throw the change-up in any count.
"And that's taken two years to get to where he's at," McClure said. "It's really, really coming."
McClure has modest goals for his young pitchers this season. He wants them to learn something from every start. It could be a horrible night in which the pitcher is pummeled, but McClure wants them to grab a piece of knowledge from it. Something to apply in the future.
He looks at Nola and sees a pitcher ready for advanced courses. Every time the pitcher receives the ball from his catcher, he must know five things — inning, count, score, runners, and outs. "Situational pitching," McClure said. But the game can quicken on young pitchers. Those basic facts sound simple; sometimes they are difficult to remember.
That is why McClure gushed about an innocuous sequence from Nola's last start in Milwaukee, which was not his best outing. The Brewers tied the game, 1-1, in the fifth inning on a two-out double by Eric Thames. Ryan Braun, a dangerous hitter, was next. Travis Shaw was on deck. Nola pitched around Braun because he had an open base and preferred the matchup against Shaw. Shaw flied out on a 92.6-mph fastball.
Nola allowed nine of the 27 men he faced that night to reach base. But only two scored in six innings.
"It's fun to watch," McClure said. "You can tell when he's getting it."
It helps to have a fastball with a little extra juice. He can sneak more past batters.
"I feel like I've done it a few times where I didn't do it last year," Nola said. "Hitters weren't as late on the fastball. I try to be efficient with my legs and I'll try to stay in that all season."