It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia. That is unless you're a Yankees fan! The Phillies came away with a 7-0 victory over New York and for the most part, the game was pretty much in hand after the fifth innings.
Why am I, a fantasy baseball writer, so interested in this game? This game was the perfect mesh of a combination of several important themes that are so important when it comes to fantasy baseball analysis. We talk a lot about pitch usage, swing decisions, contact quality + quantity, but to see it all put into action is remarkably fascinating.
The starting pitcher for the Phillies this game is someone who might have heard of: ace Aaron Nola. The 28-year-old needs little introduction. With a career 3.49 ERA and 3.41 FIP, he's established quite a resume and was a top-ten pitcher in terms of average draft position (ADP) in fantasy drafts. It's not just the track record that was exciting. In the shortened 2020 season he posted a career-high 33.2% strikeout rate and a 3.19 FIP with the hope he'd be able to build off arguably the best year of his career.
Based on FIP (3.25), he's done that so far. Sure, his strikeout rate (27.6%) is down but he's limiting walks (5.3%) better than ever. Case closed, right? Not so fast! Nola is clearly a different pitcher this season even if the results have been similar.
First, there his pitch usage. This year he's increased his fastball usage from 25.3% to 38.5% mainly at the expense of sinkers (20.7% to 10.9%). Based on modern pitch usage trends this is not surprising. Pitchers are throwing four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone so even if it means fewer ground balls it generally leads to more strikeouts and overall success. To boot, Nola's ground-ball rate (41.2%) is a career-low, but his fastball induces more whiffs (25.7%) than his sinker (13.3%).
Nola's strikeout rate hasn't improved. Why would this be the case? Less effectiveness with the curveball (27.9% put-away rate) is a factor, but it mainly stems from a new approach. Earlier in his career, he pounded the strike zone with consistency yet likely in an attempt to miss more bats, he decreased his zone rates to 46.2% and 44%, respectively in 2019 and 2020. This year he's back to throwing over half (51.6%) of his pitches in the zone. Generally, this would be fine but since he's someone who has thrived with inducing chases (32.4% 2021) less than blowing hitters away (79.1% 2021), it's a strategy that seemed to fit him less.
This season Nola's swinging strike rate (13%) is the highest of his career outside of 2020 but since he's not inducing called strikes (17.5%), his called strike + whiff rate (30.5%) is the lowest of his career. That's very interesting, but it all goes back to his curveball. He's increased his zone rate on the pitch from 45.8% to 55.2% which generally is going to lead to fewer whiffs. Even with two strikes, he's throwing about 50% of his curveballs in the zone which is a very high amount. For perspective, here's Nola's pitch location chart in this game:
That's a lot of curveballs over the heart of the plate. Obviously, it did not come back to bite him in this game (7.2 IP, 0 ER, 9 K, 1 BB), though it is definitely worth wondering if a better offense could exploit some of those command issues.
That team, however, was clearly not the Yankees. With a 97 team wRC+ for the season, it has safe to say that the team has not met expectations offensively. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case but could you ever expect a team with their pedigree to rank 19th in isolated power (ISO)? They'll need much more production in that area as soon as possible.
One player who could definitely help with that is Gleyber Torres, who is quite the case study. As a former top prospect expectations were through the roof for him and with a 121+ wRC+ in each of his first two seasons he was on his way to reaching that. Then, his power went away.
I'm not joking. Here is Torres' isolated power by season: