It was just five months ago that Aaron Nola made his big league debut on July 21st.
On that day at Citizens Bank Park, Nola shut down the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing just five hits and one run while striking out a half-dozen Rays’ batters over six innings.
That was the first of thirteen starts Nola would make in his rookie season. He was shut down a week early, following a shutout of Washington at Nationals Park over five innings.
All in all, Nola finished the season with a 6-2 record, 3.59 ERA, and a 1.197 WHIP. He allowed 74 hits in 77.2 innings, with a 68/19 K:BB ratio.
The player who had been the Phillies 1st round MLB Amateur Draft choice just a year earlier had shown that he belonged and could be counted on in a big league rotation.
With every prognosticator of such things already predicting that Nola would ultimately settle into the middle of a contending big league rotation, it might appear that all the 22-year old needs to do in the coming 2016 season is stay healthy, and keep on keepin’ on.
Do what he did in 2015, only over a full season, and continue that over a long career.
However, even with an obviously talented player such as Nola, one who has produced at every level to this point in his young career, there is plenty to hope for under a baseball Christmas tree.
There are three things in particular that we hope were found under his tree in this case.
The first is the same as with any pitcher – health. He has never faced a significant injury. If the Phillies end up getting a decade of 180-200 mostly quality innings seasons from their right-hander that would be invaluable for the franchise.
As the 2015 season wound to a close, and the organization was debating whether to shut him down early, Nola was quoted by Philly.com’s Matt Breen on the topic. “I definitely feel better than I thought I would at this time of year,” Nola said. “I still feel like I can pitch a good bit.“
In the 2014 season, Nola had pitched 116.1 innings over 16 starts in winding down his outstanding collegiate career at LSU.
After being drafted and signed by the Phillies in early June, Nola proceeded to pitch another 55.1 innings over a dozen appearances, 11 of them starts, split between Clearwater and Reading.
That total of 171.2 innings in 2014 was ultimately increased to 187 innings this past season.
He tossed 109.1 of those in the minors, split between Reading and Lehigh Valley, and then those 77.2 with the Phillies. That bump of 15.1 innings in usage should not be considered excessive.
While the Phillies have been somewhat aggressive in their promotion and usage of Nola, that was really part of the point in drafting him in the first place.
He was considered an advanced prospect who would not require much developmental time in the minors, and that has proven to be the case.
A second gift that it would be nice for Nola to receive is one of increased performance. His anticipated role as a mid-rotation starter on a contender, more of a solid #3 or 4 type, could be elevated to more of a strong #2 starter.
The key there will be maintaining and possibly even improving upon the pinpoint control that allows his pure stuff, which is a tick above average, to play up even further.
If Nola finds another level in performance, and can develop into a Greg Maddux clone, even an approximation of that level of control, what a gift that would be for the player and the Phillies.
Finally, Nola could receive the gift of a better team in front of him. He performed well and won consistently with the worst team in Major League Baseball.
A leap forward by the talent around him would be a boon to the stats on the back of his baseball cards, and to the fans who will be paying to enjoy them all.