With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling


Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 1


Aaron Nola made his sixth straight impressive start and the Phillies' offense jumped on each of the first two pitchers they faced in a 6-1 win.

Twenty-one runs on 41 hits over the last three games ... break up this lineup.

The Phils never trailed Friday, building a two-run lead two batters into the bottom of the first inning with a walk from Cesar Hernandez and a home run from Freddy Galvis.

When Brewers starter Matt Garza exited after the fifth inning, the Phillies greeted reliever Carlos Torres with three hits — including a two-run double by Tommy Joseph — and two walks.

Six runs were more than enough support for a locked-in Nola, who at one point struck out eight Brewers in a nine-batter span.

The win was the fourth in five games for the 33-61 Phillies. It was a sixth straight loss for the Brewers (52-47), who haven't won since the Phillies left Milwaukee last weekend.

Starting pitching report
Nola's only blemish was a second-inning solo home run off the bat of Brett Phillips. He allowed just five hits over seven innings and struck out nine.

He had all four pitches — fastball, curveball, sinker and especially his changeup — working.

It's the sixth straight quality start for Nola, who improved to 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA. Over his last six starts, he's 4-1 with a 1.70 ERA, a .190 opponents' batting average and 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings.

Nola induced groundball double plays in the first and third innings. He didn't pick up his first strikeout until the final batter of the third inning, but from that point, he whiffed eight of nine batters.

During this six-start stretch, Nola's opponents have hit .118 with runners in scoring position, second in the National League to only Clayton Kershaw.

Garza allowed two first-inning runs before holding the Phillies scoreless over the next four frames. He walked three, struck out four, and stranded the bases loaded with one out in the second inning.

Bullpen report
Pat Neshek struck out two during a scoreless eighth inning. His ERA is down to 1.14. The only two relievers in the majors with a lower ERA are Pirates closer Felipe Rivero (0.70) and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (0.88).

Hector Neris pitched a clean ninth.

The Phillies have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors since June 26 at 1.84.

At the plate
Galvis has 11 homers and 41 RBIs on the season. He's hitting .252 with a .728 OPS, a respectable mark for a shortstop with a glove like his. He's on pace for 19 home runs, a season after hitting a career-high 20. 

Notable players who have more at-bats and fewer home runs than Galvis' 31 since the start of 2016: Christian Yelich, Buster Posey, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts. 

No, he doesn't get on base enough, but the good has vastly outweighed the bad with Galvis this season.

Leading 2-1 in the sixth, the Phillies added four insurance runs on Joseph's double off the center-field wall, a bases-loaded walk by Hernandez and a sac fly from Galvis. These are important at-bats moving forward for Joseph and Hernandez, who have Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery at Triple A breathing down their necks.

Hernandez walked twice and was hit by a pitch. Since returning from the DL, he's reached base in 9 of 21 plate appearances.

The Phillies were ecstatic to see a Brewers team without Ryan Braun, who missed the game with wrist and calf issues. Braun may be the foremost active Phillie killer and his numbers at Citizens Bank Park are insane — .383 batting average, 10 homers, 29 RBIs and his highest OPS (1.150) in any park.

A new Franco?
Prior to Friday's game, Pete Mackanin opined that the reason behind Maikel Franco's recent successful run is a more level swing (see story). Mackanin thinks that Franco is focusing less on lofting the ball and the result is more plate coverage.

Franco went 1 for 4 Friday with a sharply hit single between third and short.

Howie's back
Howie Kendrick (hamstring) was activated off the DL Friday and Brock Stassi was optioned to Triple A. Kendrick did not start but had a pinch-hit single up the middle in the eighth. Mackanin plans to play him every day if Kendrick shows this weekend that he's fully healthy. The Phils want him to get as many plate appearances as possible ahead of the July 31 trade deadline (see story).

Kendrick is hitting .354 with an .887 OPS. Plenty of contending teams could use him, especially because of his positional versatility.

Health check
Daniel Nava exited in the seventh inning with a hamstring injury and is day to day. He missed just under two weeks in May with a right hamstring strain, which he said was the first of his career.

Up next
The three-game series continues Saturday night at 7:05 when Jeremy Hellickson (6-5, 4.44) opposes Brewers left-hander Brent Suter (1-1, 3.09).

Maikel Franco less focused on launch angle and his swing has improved

Maikel Franco less focused on launch angle and his swing has improved

In the time since MLB's Statcast technology emerged in 2015, several new terms have been added to the baseball lexicon. Exit velocity. Launch angle. Route efficiency.

It's given teams and baseball fans new ways to measure a player's worth. But the developments haven't been all positive. One of the new obsessions around the league is with launch angle, which measures the trajectory of a ball after it leaves the bat. Players who have higher launch angles tend to hit more deep flyballs, which is obviously the most likely path of a home run.

As a result, we've seen home runs skyrocket around baseball ... along with strikeouts.

Enter Maikel Franco. You'll recall that when Phillies GM Matt Klentak spoke at the end of May, he cited exit velocity and launch angle as reasons why Franco had been a little bit better than his traditional stats indicate. 

Franco has finally come around over the last month, hitting .276/.340/.528 with 11 doubles, seven homers, 13 walks and 12 strikeouts over his last 141 plate appearances. So it was interesting that when manager Pete Mackanin was asked Friday how Franco has been able to finally drive the ball consistently, he brought up Franco's getting away from the launch angle obsession.

"I tell you what: I noticed it in Milwaukee and it just kind of slapped me in the face. He's not upper-cutting the ball," Mackanin said. "He has a nice, level swing. Matt (Stairs) had him shorten his stride and that helped in that regard. But he is working above the ball rather than underneath the ball. 

"There's this trend for hitters to want to lift the ball and they do it wrong. They don't understand the whole concept of getting the ball in the air. And a nice, level swing will get the ball in the air. You hit just under that equator of the ball, that's where you get lift. Anyway, his swing path is really much better."

Mackanin could sense Franco was going to have a big series in Miami.

"Just watching him take BP, I was watching him and I said, 'That's a different swing than I've been watching, even for a couple years,'" Mackanin said. "And to me, it's conducive to success, what he's doing now. And I even told (Bob) McClure before the game in Miami, 'You know what? If he carries BP over to the game, he's going to have a good game.' And he got three hits, hit the home run. So I am kind of cautiously optimistic about this. If he continues to do what he's doing, he's going to have a good second half, I believe."

Then came the question: Are players today too concerned with those kind of metrics? Can it be detrimental to their natural development?

"I think so," Mackanin said. "Somebody was talking to (Daniel) Murphy and Murphy made the comment that there's four infielders and only three outfielders, so he doesn't want to hit groundballs, he wants to get the ball in the air. So players start thinking about launch angle. To them it means swinging up on the ball, which is counterproductive. It's like when you're golfing. If you swing down, you hit the ball up with a nine iron, let the club do the work.

"I was talking to somebody over in Washington and they said Murphy wants to elevate the ball but he does it by hitting the bottom of the ball with a level swing. He looks for the bottom of the ball to hit with a level swing. If you hit the equator, it's a line drive. If you hit just under it, you get that backspin. That's what he tries to do. 

"So it is misinterpreted. It's like (Josh) Donaldson came out and said, "When coaches tell you to hit groundballs, don't listen to them. Don't hit them. You've got to elevate the ball.' Well, if you watch Donaldson's swing in action, he doesn't swing up on the ball. He's got a nice level swing."

Right now, so does Franco, and the Phillies badly need this last month to be more than a mirage.