Fantasy Baseball: Aaron Nola Is Poised to Take Another Step Forward in 2018
When you think of the elite starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola is not one of the first pitchers that comes to mind. And with regard to fantasy baseball, Nola doesn't fit the profile of the stud flamethrower like Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer, or Jacob deGrom. He doesn't have the pedigree of Chris Sale or Clayton Kershaw, and he isn't as highly regarded as Corey Kluber or Stephen Strasburg.
That may all change in 2018, however. And fantasy baseball owners should take note.
Nola overpowered an admittedly overwhelmed group of Boston Red Sox players down in Clearwater this week, but even given the lack of stars in the Boston lineup, it's easy to see his stuff is already in midseason form.
â€” Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) March 7, 2018
While he may not have the kind of overpowering arsenal you're used to from a top-level fantasy starter, he has the goods to dominate, and this season, he could be the most underrated arm in fantasy.
The 2017 Breakout
There were question marks surrounding the former Phils' first-round pick heading into last year. An elbow injury cut his 2016 short, and it wasn't a good one. He went 6-9 with a 4.78 ERA in 20 starts and made a lot of people nervous that he'd have a hard time staying healthy with his funky delivery. Nola didn't have surgery that offseason and came into 2017 with concerns about his long-term health.
But after a short stint on the disabled list in April with back tightness, he was terrific. The right-hander went 12-11 with a 3.57 ERA in 168 innings (27 starts), striking out 9.86 batters per nine innings with a whiff rate of 26.6%. He also kept his walks down, issuing a free pass just 7.1% of the time, a mark of 2.63 per nine.
Nola has always outperformed his ERA, too. His fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 3.08 in his down 2016 season was actually better than last year's 3.27, but both show his peripherals were excellent.
Despite having a fastball that doesn't get much higher than 94-95 miles per hour, Nola uses pinpoint control and excellent location with his secondary pitches to whiff batters at a rate of more than one per inning. Out of 58 qualified starters last year, Nola's strikeout rate ranked 14th. His FIP was also among the best in baseball as the ninth-lowest mark in the Majors.
Where He Ranks
Certainly, the starters mentioned above are all "better" than Nola, both in real-world baseball and in fantasy. He's currently the 21st pitcher off the board (including relievers) and it's hard to argue he should be selected prior to any of the arms being drafted in front of him. But when you compare his numbers to those of other starters you might consider taking in the fifth or sixth rounds of your 12-team leagues, you see Nola is the clear choice among the hurlers below.
Nola's combined Wins Above Replacement between FanGraphs(fWAR) and Baseball Reference (bWAR) are more than any of the starters listed above, along with owning the third-highest strikeout percentage and the second-lowest FIP.
Crazy Hot Streaks
The one thing plaguing Nola right now is inconsistency. He rarely gets blown up by a team, but he'll have stretches where he mixes in good starts with a series of clunkers.
For one 10-start stretch last season, he was the best pitcher in baseball. From June 2nd2 through August 12th, he put up a 1.71 ERA, 2.66 FIP, and struck out 10.27 batters per nine innings (K/9). His average fastball velocity increased from 91.4 mph to 92.7 mph last year, and his curveball saved 18.3 runs for his team in 2017, second-best only to Kluber (37.8).
However, in the eight starts that followed that 10-game stretch, he had an ERA of 4.81, although his FIP (3.53) and K/9 (10.91) indicates he was still throwing pretty darn well.
During that red-hot stretch, Nola was a true, bonafide ace, showing he has the ability to be one of fantasy baseball's most effective starters.
Our projections show Nola having another outstanding season in 2018, putting up a 3.76 ERA with 182 strikeouts in 185 innings of work. If you decide to focus on offense early, Nola can be your staff ace, although he fits in better as a second starter.
And while he's not a member of the elite tier of arms just yet, a slight improvement in 2018 could put him in that upper echelon.