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Smash or Pass: Aaron Nola

Despite an inflated ERA in 2023, Nola is as reliable as they get to take the ball every fifth day.

Championship Series - Arizona Diamondbacks v. Philadelphia Phillies - Game Six Photo by Brian Garfinkel/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Welcome to Smash Or Pass, a new offseason series in which we’ll examine various free agents and trade targets to determine whether they make sense for the Red Sox. Today, we’re taking a look at starting pitcher Aaron Nola.

Who is he and where does he come from?

He’s Aaron Nola, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft out of LSU who made his debut for the Philadelphia Phillies just over a year later in July of 2015. He’s pitched nine seasons for the Phillies and is entering his age-31 season (turning 31 in June).

What position does he play?

Nola is a starting pitcher and a durable one at that. He has made 32 or more starts and thrown 180+ innings every season since 2018, with the exception of the short 2020 season, of course, when Nola made all 12 of his starts totaling 71 1/3 innings. In the past five seasons, Nola has started more games than any pitcher in baseball (142) and thrown the third-most innings (853), trailing only Gerrit Cole and Sandy Alcantara.

Is he any good?

Well, in those five seasons, Nola is fourth in fWAR (20.0) for all pitchers in MLB, trailing only Zack Wheeler (23.9), Cole (22.6), and Max Scherzer (20.3), so you could argue that he is great. Of the 70 pitchers who have thrown 500 or more innings in that time, he is thirteenth in K% (28.2%), eighteenth in BB% (6.2%), and twelfth in WHIP (1.12). However, he’s just 35th out of 70 in ERA (3.97) over the past five years, exactly in the middle of the pack.

That ERA has been pretty inflated by the 2021 and 2023 seasons. In 2021, Nola sported a 4.63 ERA, but just a 3.37 FIP and xFIP, a shocking one-and-a-quarter run difference between his ERA and indicators. In 2023, his ERA was 4.46, but with a 4.03 FIP and 3.63 xFIP. These FIP indicators, short for “Fielding Independent Pitching,” take batted balls hit into the field of play out of the equation, and the Phillies sure didn’t thrive on balls hit into the field of play in recent years. In 2023, the Phillies were tied for the fourth-worst in Defensive Runs Saved as a team.

DRS Worst to Best in 2023

In 2022, the Phillies as a team were the sixth-worst defensively (-33 DRS). In 2021, the season in which Nola’s discrepancies were the highest, they were the worst in all of baseball at -54 DRS. Would these numbers have been any better in Boston the past few years? Of course not. But it makes you wonder whether Nola could put it all together for a Cy Young level season with the right team around him.

TL;DR, just give me his 2023 stats.

Regular Season: 32 GS, 193 2/3 IP, 12-9 record, 4.46 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 45 BB, 202 K, 32 HR

Playoffs: 4 GS, 23 IP, 3-1 record, 2.35 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 4 BB, 23 K, 2 HR

Why would he be a good fit on the 2024 Red Sox?

The fact that the Red Sox need pitching goes without saying. The Sox didn’t have a single starting pitcher qualify for the ERA title in 2023, which would require throwing 162 innings. Brayan Bello led the team with 157 innings, and Nick Pivetta was the only other pitcher who eclipsed 130 innings. In 2022, Pivetta was the only pitcher on the entire team who surpassed 130 innings. While the health of a pitcher is never a sure thing long-term, Nola’s stability in taking the ball every fifth day rivals any other pitcher in baseball, something that this team badly needs.

Additionally, with the pitching mindset being brought in with Craig Breslow as Chief Baseball Officer and the team reportedly close to hiring Andrew Bailey as pitching coach, there is hope that this franchise can start to unlock the best versions of their pitchers. Nola’s ground ball rate has decreased in recent years, and his home runs have increased to go with that.

Aaron Nola Ground Ball Rate

If the team can get Nola working towards mixing in a few more ground balls and put a quality defensive infield behind him, he could be an ace pitcher in Boston well into his thirties. Nola also has gained playoff experience in the last two seasons with the Phillies, going 5-3 with a 3.70 ERA in 9 starts.

Why would he NOT be a good fit on the 2024 Red Sox?

As mentioned, Nola needs good defense behind him and a park that suppresses home runs to be at his best. I think that Boston gives him one of those two things currently. Although Fenway Park did rank as the second-best offensive ballpark by Park Factor in MLB in 2023 (behind Coors Field) it was only the seventeenth-best park for home runs specifically. However, if you scroll up to the defensive ratings that trashed the Phillies above, you’d see that the Red Sox were seventh-worst.

By the 2025 season at the latest, we can envision Marcelo Mayer, Trevor Story, and Ceddanne Rafaela up the middle, with a Kyle Teel/Connor Wong combination keeping runners in check on the basepaths. Whether the team can keep things clean defensively on the corners remains to be seen.

Show me a cool highlight.

Here’s Aaron Nola throwing six shutout innings and striking out seven batters in Game 2 of the NLCS this year. Four of the strikeouts came on his devastating curve ball, the pitch that he threw more than any other in 2023 (31.6% of the time), averaging 79.4 mph and allowing just a .221 BA in 2023.

What would he cost?

MLB Trade Rumors and Spotrac each estimated Nola at 6 years in the $140-150M range. Fangraphs’ Ben Clemens has 5 years and $140M. ESPN’s Kylie McDaniel was on the lower end, with a 5-year, $120M estimate. There isn’t much from last year to be considered a fair comparison, other than Carlos Rodon’s 6-for-162 deal. Rodon was 29 years old but with a significant injury history. Nola will likely be aiming to get something close to that. It should be noted that the Phillies extended the Qualifying Offer, so the Red Sox would lose their 2024 second-round pick if they signed Nola.

Smash or Pass?

Nola certainly isn’t perfect but finding the ideal combination of durability and productivity as a pitcher is rare. Gerrit Cole may be the only one who truly qualifies, and $324 million was needed to secure his services. Corbin Burnes may qualify a year from now, but unless you’re trading for Burnes, I don’t think the Red Sox have the time to wait a year for him in free agency. If the Red Sox lose out on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Nola is the best bet in my mind.