As Aaron Nola ends dominant season, what is left for him to work on?


We watched Carson Wentz make The Leap in 2017. Ben Simmons is expected to do the same in his second pro season. In between, Aaron Nola made a leap of his own.

Nola, who ended his season Saturday night with seven shutout innings against the Braves, was one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball this season, no matter how you measure it.

"When I told Nola he was gonna be done for the game, I looked at him and I said that's maybe the best season I've ever seen a pitcher have up close," manager Gabe Kapler said. "And I was with Pedro Martinez, arguably in his prime. I think Nola's season was right up there with Roy Halladay's best, Cliff Lee's best, Steve Carlton's best. A jaw-dropping season."

This is not going to be a deep-dive into Nola's stats. Instead, let's focus on what enabled Nola to make The Leap in 2018 and what he can improve upon for next season, if anything.

What made Nola so unhittable this season was his constant mastery of all four pitches. He had a filthy two-seam fastball and curveball from the day he arrived in the majors. Over the years, he's added some zip to his four-seam fastball and has more confidence in his changeup against hitters from both sides.

Here are some examples.

Nola has multiple curveballs. There is the get-me-over curve for strike 1, the curve that starts at a right-handed hitter's hip before finishing over the plate, and the curve that starts on the outside corner and leaves the zone completely.

And an example of how much the changeup dives.

This arsenal will enable Nola to be one of the best pitchers in the game for a long time. Right now, no pitcher in the National League is a better value. Nola made $573,000 this season, his final pre-arbitration year. His salaries will rise significantly these next three years but he'll still be underpaid until the Phillies sign him to a long-term deal buying out those arbitration years and his first few years of free agency.

Quite frankly, there isn't much more room for growth for Nola. How much lower can the ERA get? Nola's ERA this season (2.37) was lower than Roy Halladay's when he won the Cy Young award here. 

He struck out more than a batter per inning. He became the first Phillies pitcher in 103 years to pitch at least 200 innings with an opponents' batting average under .200.

"As creative as he is and as crafty as he is, I can see him developing another pitch," Kapler said. "That's just more my confidence and my belief in him, that anything's possible rather than him needing it by any stretch. If he goes out and repeats what he did this year, with the stuff he has this year, you can envision 15 years of dominance."

One of the most fascinating elements of Nola's season was his ability to keep the ball in the park despite always being around the plate. Even after allowing nine home runs in five starts from Sept. 2 to Sept. 23, Nola has allowed just 17 in 212⅓ innings. That is not common. 

Here are the top seven pitchers in the majors this season in innings pitched, along with their home run total:

1. Max Scherzer: 220⅔ IP, 23 HR

2. Jacob deGrom: 217 IP, 10 HR

3. Justin Verlander: 214 IP, 28 HR

4. Aaron Nola: 212⅓ IP, 17 HR

5. Corey Kluber: 210 IP, 25 HR

6. Zack Greinke: 207⅔ IP, 28 HR

7. James Shields: 204⅔ 34 HR

"Keep working on my delivery. Keep learning more about the game," Nola said of his goals for next season, adding he'll take a month off when the offseason begins. "There's always room for improvement, every year. Come out next year and keep trying to do it."

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