Now that the ink has dried on the death certificate of the Phillies’ surreal season, it becomes clear who, precisely, performed farthest below expectations.
It was Aaron Nola.
Nola was the Phillies’ opening day pitcher. This means they expected him to be their best pitcher. They needed 15 wins and 200 innings from him. He went 9-9 with a 4.63 ERA, having averaged a 3.46 ERA the last four seasons. He pitched just 180⅔ innings.
This should settle the debate on whether he’s an ace.
Nola is a pretty good pitcher, but he’s not a great pitcher. He used to be a very good pitcher, but the league has caught up with him. Hitters seem to know when both his fastball and curveball are coming. The Braves certainly did Wednesday night, when they effectively knocked the Phillies out of the National League East race.
When the Phillies need him most, he pitches his worst. He lasted six innings and gave up three runs Wednesday, a mediocre outing amid another disastrous September, in which he logged a whopping 6.19 ERA and didn’t last past the sixth inning in any of his six starts and made it through six innings just twice. In his career, he’s given up 32 homers after August. His next-worst month is June, with 19.
Nola wasn’t the only reason the Phillies missed the playoffs for the 10th year in a row, but, when factoring expectations, he was the biggest.
Joe Girardi’s a convenient target, but no, he wasn’t the biggest reason, despite his misplaced faith in starters late in games, some mystifying pinch-hitting decisions, and his bizarre mistakes regarding lineup cards and mound visits. Still, considering Girardi’s challenges -- no fourth or fifth starter, no real closer for months, and no viable center fielder, third baseman, or shortstop for most of the season -- 81 wins (through Thursday) feels like a minor miracle.
John Middleton will take bullets, too, cast as a miserly owner unwilling to go for broke, but his strategy was more wise than penurious. He spent up to the luxury tax, which was smart. Middleton understood that his team had so many holes that patching it here and there wouldn’t win the Phillies 94 games. He hoped 85 wins would be enough. It probably would have been if Nola had been better.
There were other culprits, but none as inexplicable as Nola. Andrew McCutchen’s .218 batting average reflected 34-year-old rebuilt knees. Héctor Neris again proved that he’s a hell of a setup man who should never see the ninth inning again. Didi Gregorius played horrid shortstop in a third consecutive incomplete season; any expectations beyond that were foolish.
It wasn’t foolish to expect more from Nola, even if he isn’t an ace.
As it turns out, he wasn’t even a No. 1.
Six more wins should have won the Phillies the East. Nola won 17 games in 2018, with a far inferior team, and that performance earned him the four-year, $45 million contract extension than runs through next season.
Was he worth his $11.75 million salary for this season? Maybe. It’s not a huge salary. But was he a No. 1 pitcher? Nope. In fact, he was, at best, the sixth-best pitcher on the staff, graded on the curve of expectation.
Zack Wheeler logged a season worthy of Cy Young votes. Neris was a lockdown setup man. Zach Eflin was better than anyone expected until he got hurt and then got COVID. Ranger Suárez was a second-half revelation. The Phillies hoped Kyle Gibson would give them chances to win when they acquired him at the trade deadline, and he did that most of the time.
Consider, now, the expectations of the hitters. Bryce Harper is the National League’s Most Valuable Player, whether he wins the award or not. Rhys Hoskins was supposed to be Harper’s protection, and he was until he got hurt. Jean Segura, professional hitter, hit professionally. All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto justified his $115 million contract.
Nola, who was expected to be the second-most-important player on the team after Harper, finished as the 10th most-important. Tenth.
He was supposed to be the staff’s leader, but he missed two starts because of contact-tracing as part of the team’s vast COVID anti-vax contingent.
It’s hard to lead from quarantine.
What’s the problem?
Nola gave up 12 two-strike home runs in 32 outings this season, tied for the fifth-most in baseball and by far the highest total of his seven-year career. Nola first made more than 20 starts in 2017, and over the next four seasons he gave up 0.32 two-strike homers per nine innings pitched. That number almost doubled in 2021, to 0.59.
The numbers don’t lie.
“It’s executing with two strikes,” Girardi said.
How did Nola regard his season?
“Not that great,” he said Wednesday. “Up and down.”
“I just think execution of pitches,” Nola said.
Nola said he didn’t think he’d put too much pressure on himself, which might be true. But he also said that he didn’t think hitters had caught up with him, which seems naive. They caught up a while ago. Nola is 14-14 with a 4.25 ERA in the last two seasons combined.
So, blame Girardi or Middleton or new president Dave Dombrowksi, who did what he could to make the team competitive. Remember, though, that it was the Braves’ underachievement that made the Phillies relevant the last six weeks, not the Phillies’ overachievement.
As it turns out, had Aaron Nola simply achieved to the level of expectation, next week might be relevant, too.