When Aaron Nola was drafted seventh overall by the Phillies in June of 2014, a number of pundits correctly predicted that the polished LSU product would quickly hit the majors. Nola made his MLB debut just over a year after being selected and he didn’t disappoint.
In 13 starts, Nola, 22, went 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA and a 1.197 WHIP with the worst team in baseball. Nola doesn’t overpower hitters. But he possesses a good fastball and a plus curveball. Add uncommon poise and a fearlessness, which is reminiscent of Cliff Lee and the big question is whether Nola is a top or middle of the rotation starter.
Metro asked Nola about the impact of the legendary hurlers, who are no longer Phillies, his development of the changeup and his approach, which is to attack the strike zone.
There are some common denominators between you and Cliff Lee. You both throw in the low 90s and attack hitters. Many of your peers nibble but who encouraged you to go at hitters like you do?
I had a pitching coach at LSU (Alan Dunn). His first year there was my first year. He taught me some of the ropes and he said, like you said, attacking is a big thing for pitchers. You got to attack with the first pitch. A first pitch strike is one of the most important things in an at bat. You can’t nibble. You’re not going to win that way.
When Vance Worley was with the Phillies, he would talk about how huge it was to have guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels around. What kind of impact did they have on you last season?
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They had a big impact on me. I watched Cliff on TV for years. I watched him in person last year in spring training. He did a bullpen with some of the guys. His control was outstanding. The spots he hit with every pitch he threw was incredible.
You seem to share his attitude, which was ‘go ahead and beat me if you can.’
That’s the competitive nature of Cliff Lee. I talked to guys he played with and he definitely had that ‘ beat me if you can’ attitude. He would throw it wherever he wanted, which is what I think I’m capable of.
Some guys are video junkies and then there was Lee, who avoided video and went with feel. Where are you in that world?
Video only goes so far. I looked at video last year since it was my first time facing guys up here. But once you face them, you get a feel for what you want to throw. I like going with feel but a big part of that is developing a good relationship with your catcher.
Cameron Rupp raves about your potential but he commented on how there is now a book on you and you have to make adjustments.
You got to mix things up. You can’t do the same thing because the hitters in the majors will catch on. I made my share of mistakes last year and that hurt me in some games but I learned from it. I have a good relationship with Chooch and Rupp. We’re going to be going over specific things that will help me get better.
One of those things, according to Rupp, is the development of a changeup to augment your fastball and curve. Did you spend much of your time during the offseason working on the change?
I’ve been working on it quite a bit. I need to get that third pitch going for me.
Did you speak with Hamels about it since he possesses one of the best changeups in the game?
I definitely talked with Cole about his change.
What did he say aside from throw the pitch a lot since it’s a feel pitch?
He said exactly what you said, ‘throw the change a lot.’ He said that it takes a lot of time since it is a feel pitch. So I’ve thrown the change so many times during the off-season. I’m getting the feel of it. If I can have three pitches I can command, that would be really good.
How does it feel being part of the rotation in which you have the most tenure even though you’ve been with the Phillies for less than half a season?
It’s weird (laughs) but that’s the way it is. There is a youth movement here and I’m thrilled to be part of this. I think we have a great deal of talent here. I can’t wait to see how it goes this season. I think there are many reasons for optimism.