Pete Mackanin spent three seasons in the same clubhouse as Cliff Lee during his four-year stint with the Phillies.
Lee is gone now, but Mackanin is getting a few déjà vu moments when he sees Aaron Nola takes the mound.
“He reminds me of Cliff Lee once in a while,” Mackanin said. “He can be a little bit wild, but he pounds the strike zone and there’s a lot of called strikes. It’s to his credit because he bangs the corners.”
The manager calls Nola a “strike thrower.” For a pitcher, that’s a pretty high complement, especially when you’re only 22-years-old and just made your 14th career start on Monday. Through two outings, Nola has thrown 190 pitches – 140 of those have been for strikes (74 percent).
That’s why he finds himself drawing comparisons to someone as accomplished as Lee.
The funny thing is, Nola admits he studied plenty of film on the 2008 Cy Young award winner while growing up.
“Cliff was outstanding,” Nola said. “I watched him pitch when he was coming up with the Indians. I watched his career a pretty good bit. He’s a good competitor. He was a pretty good guy to watch and learn from.”
Looking at the numbers, that claim from Mackanin may be spot on. Nola is the only pitcher in baseball as of Monday with double-digit strikeouts (17) and no walks and the first to pull off the feat to start a season since, you guessed it, Lee himself.
Lee’s first two starts in his first season in Philadelphia saw him put up 14 strikeouts with one walk. The following year, he compiled 18 strikeouts with two walks in his first three starts.
So, yeah, Nola has the makeup of a future Cliff Lee.
Yet, no pitcher would be complete without a dynamic battery mate. For Lee, that was Ruiz. For Nola, it’s Cameron Rupp.
At the major league level, no one other than Rupp has caught him. That’s 14-for-14 and that number will only grow this season. When the two are working together, there’s hardly any discrepancy on the field. Even if Nola shakes his head, Rupp said it’s more than likely a dummy shake just to fool the batter and not an issue of communication.
“A guy like that, that’s who you want to catch,” Rupp said. “Whether it’s his preference or that’s what [the coaches] want to do, I’m going to continue to work with him. He’s going to throw his game and get guys out for a long time.
“For any combination, when you’re on the same page, you’re going to have success.”
Mackanin says the duo will continue to work with one another. Why mess a good thing up, right?
There’s real chemistry between the two. It’s apparent when listening and seeing Rupp talk about Nola and vice versa. It’s not on the level of a Ruiz and Roy Halladay, but as the starts begin to pile up between one another, there’s a chance for something special.
“Nothing affects him,” Rupp said. “Nothing phases him out there. He doesn’t show emotion. When he’s at his highest point, and when he’s down in the ditches, he battles and knows how to pitch. He stays within himself.”
Here’s the scary thing: Nola isn’t even close to his peak yet. He admits he needs to work on some of his secondary pitches and be more consistent with those.
That’s something he’ll develop with more starts under his belt.
“I expected him to be poised because that’s how he showed up to the big leagues,” Mackanin said. “He’s a special individual. He’s very confident in his ability and he knows what he has to do.”
For now, though, Mackanin will continue seeing shades of No. 33 in Nola and hopefully in another year or so, those glimpses will become reality.