What Phillies need from Nola and Wheeler in their first full season together

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Aaron Nola will take the mound against the Yankees in Tampa Monday in the first of four Phillies night games this week. Zack Wheeler is scheduled to start Tuesday in Clearwater against the Blue Jays. 

Barring something crazy, they'll start the first two games of the season for the Phillies, April 1 and April 3 against the Braves. By the time the season is two weeks old, they should have six combined starts against the Phils' top two NL East rivals.

We saw last summer how potent the 1-2 punch of Nola and Wheeler can be. For the Phillies to end their nine-year playoff drought, they'll need to do it for closer to six months. Nola and Wheeler combined last season to post a 3.10 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with just 2.5 walks per nine innings. Nola struck out a career-high 12.1 per nine innings, while Wheeler struck out a career-low 6.7.

Because the Phillies' bullpen was so bad in 2020, the team went just 11-12 in their 23 starts.

The best version of Nola is the one we saw in 2018 when he went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in one of the best pitching seasons in Phillies history. Realistically, Nola may never again reach those heights in a season and doesn't necessarily need to. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, for example, have never had ERAs that low in a season. 

Looking at Nola's last three years collectively provides a more reliable picture of his capabilities on a year-to-year basis: 3.13 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.2 innings per start, 10.2 strikeouts per nine. 

While Wheeler had the lowest ERA of his career in the shortened 2020 season, that may not have been his very best version. Wheeler traded strikeouts for groundballs last year and it allowed him to breeze through the early innings in most of his starts with a game plan based around soft contact. He had a 0.82 ERA in the first three innings of games and his opponents hit .216. 

"I think he's up there for sure," 16-year veteran catcher Jeff Mathis said of Wheeler's repertoire compared to the game's elite pitchers. "He's got four 'plus' pitches and when he's commanding the heater, it's tough on hitters."

Wheeler did have the highest swing-and-miss rate of his career last season at 10.8%, but he did not put away hitters at the clip he did the prior two seasons with the Mets. With two strikes on a hitter in 2018 and '19, Wheeler punched him out 44.1% of the time. With two strikes last season, Wheeler struck a hitter out 36.8% of the time. Over the course of nine innings, that's a difference of more than two strikeouts. In an extremely small sample worth mentioning only because it will rise in 2021, Wheeler had five opportunities last season with a runner on third and less than two outs, did not strike out any of the hitters and a run scored four times.

The Phillies don't want Wheeler to get away from keeping the ball on the ground, but what happens if he doesn't have the highest rate of groundball double plays in the majors again this year?

This is also where the Phillies' infield defense comes into play. Wheeler and Nola ranked second and sixth in the National League last season in groundball rate. Well over half of the balls in play against those two were on the ground. Defensive positioning and the execution of routine plays carries great importance with a pitching staff like this. Zach Eflin, for his part, ranked 11th in the NL last season in groundball rate.

For Nola, the question until he conquers it will be his ability to execute pitches as the season is nearing its end. The Phillies have gone 2-9 in Nola's September starts the last two seasons, crucial games while they've been fighting to make the playoffs. Nola is 7-12 with a 4.28 ERA in September compared to 51-28 with a 3.28 ERA in all other months in his career.

"It's something that we've looked at," manager Joe Girardi said last month. "One of the things that we will continue to try to put our finger on is when does he get tired and what are the best things to do to help him combat that?"

Nola is probably sick of talking about it at this point.

"I'm not really sure, to be honest with you," he said. "I've thought about it, obviously. The past few years it hasn't gone my way. I'm going to stick with what I'm good at, what I need to work on in spring training and treat September like I always do — as any other month, you know?"

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