Aaron Nola Is About to Get Very Rich, Somewhere

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason’s free agency action is basically over, so let’s go take a look ahead at next offseason. Where shortstops dominated the conversation this winter, in nine months’ time we’ll be talking about pitchers. Shohei Ohtani is in a class of his own, obviously, but the market also stands to include Yu Darvish, Julio Urías, Blake Snell, Max Scherzer (if he opts out), and Sonny Gray. Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito could also both cash in huge if they rediscover their recent ace-like form.

Also bound for the open market: last season’s leader in WAR among starting pitchers. Anyone care to guess who that is? That’s right, by a fraction of a win, it’s Aaron Nola. By any standard he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past five years. So how much money should he be out to make this offseason?

In 2022, Nola finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting, which I’d completely forgotten about despite having seen him pitch in person several times. This was one of those Cy Young races where everyone wrote “Sandy Alcantara” at the top of the ballot and then went, “Oh, crap, there are four other spots to fill out.” Nevertheless, Nola was outstanding:

Aaron Nola Among Qualified Starters, 2022
Value 29.1 3.6 31.6 205 3.25 2.74 2.58 6.3
Rank 7th 2nd 5th 2nd 23rd 5th 5th 1st

And it’s not just a one year thing. This is Nola’s second top-five Cy Young finish. He’s been worth at least 2.0 WAR every season since 2016, and at least 4.0 WAR four times in the past six seasons, not counting 2020, when he was on a 5.4 WAR pace had that season gone 162 games. He’s also qualified for the ERA title in each of the past six seasons; Gerrit Cole and Germán Márquez are the only other pitchers who can say the same.

Last season, Baseball Savant had Nola in the 90th percentile or better in chase rate, HardHit%, and xwOBA. He was in the 99th percentile in walk rate, 85th in K%, and 68th in whiff rate. Throughout his career, Nola has struck batters out while walking few and generating weak contact, and he’s done it in more innings than anyone else in the sport over the past five seasons. So why doesn’t he get talked about like a no. 1 starter?

I have four explanations. First, he’s a right-handed pitcher whose fastball averages 92 to 93 mph in an age when the standard for front-end starters is north of 95. Even with elite command and one of the best curveballs in the game, we intuitively trust finesse pitchers less than power pitchers. Second, he’s only flirted with true ace status for short periods of time. He followed up a top-three Cy Young finish in 2018 by adding a run and a half to his ERA the following season. He also posted a 4.63 ERA in 2021.

Some of that is genuine inconsistency, or the tendency to get caught in big innings. This past postseason was a perfect microcosm: Nola’s first two starts, against St. Louis and Atlanta, were masterpieces. His last three, in the NLCS and World Series, less so. He just about dodged trouble for a few innings at a time but eventually opposing hitters caught up to him.

But he’s also spent his entire career pitching in front of terrible defenses, like Rhys Hoskins-in-left-field-type stuff. Nola’s FIP has been better than his ERA in five of his seven full seasons in the majors. In 2021, when Zack Wheeler fully supplanted him as the Phillies’ ace, Nola’s 4.63 ERA dwarfed both his xERA (3.35) and FIP (3.37).

Finally, Nola’s reputation suffers because he’s neither particularly quotable nor particularly animated on the mound. Even at his most ruthless and methodical, Nola pitches with a pretty blank expression. And because he’s got a youthful face and giant eyes, it can come off as deer-in-the-headlights when in reality that’s just how he looks.

Early in the 2018 regular season, I was toying with doing a profile on Nola. I never ended up reporting the whole thing out, but whenever someone who’d played with Nola came through Houston, I made a point to go ask about him. They all said the same thing — nice guy, hard worker, very serious. But when I asked if they had any fun stories to tell, nothing. One former LSU teammate managed to recall a time Nola cut class to go fishing, but that was the best anyone could do. The total effect of this is that it’s hard to believe that all those innings, all those strikeouts, came from the quiet kid in the back of the class.

Therefore — and this is going to sound deranged, but I 100% stand by it — my advice to Nola is that he should spend every free moment of the season watching tape of Dave Stewart or Madison Bumgarner. Figure out how to glare. Ask Max Scherzer to teach him the best swear words to mutter under his breath on the mound. Tell the beat reporters on background that he’s really gotten into axe throwing in the offseason. If Nola can even come close to pulling off a convincing intimidator act, my genuine heartfelt belief is that it’ll be worth somewhere between $3 million and $5 million a season in his next contract.

Now, about that contract.

Obviously he’s not going to get what Scherzer got from the Mets or Jacob deGrom did from the Rangers. But even what you might call no. 2 starters don’t actually hit the market that frequently while in their prime. I was able to find 12 pitchers who fit the following criteria that apply to Nola: First, they signed contracts of at least $100 million, either as free agents or less than a season before reaching free agency. Second, those contracts kicked in during the pitcher’s age-29 through age-31 seasons. Third, the pitcher had never won a Cy Young Award. Even narrowing the criteria down this far throws up some unsuitable comps — hello, Gerrit Cole — but these are basically Nola’s peers:

The $100 Million Men, Part I
Contract Starts Best Pre-Contract Year 5 Seasons Pre-Contract
Aaron Nola 31 2024 205 3.25 2.58 6.3 871 2/3 3.47 3.24 21.6
Carlos Rodón 30 2023 178 2.88 2.25 6.2 473 2/3 3.33 3.19 13.1
Luis Castillo 30 2023 190 2/3 3.4 3.7 4.2 768 1/3 3.64 3.63 16.3
Kevin Gausman 31 2022 192 2.81 3 4.8 724 1/3 4.06 3.86 12.9
Gerrit Cole 29 2020 212 1/3 2.5 2.45 7.5 939 2/3 3.15 3.05 24.3
Stephen Strasburg 31 2020 175 1/3 2.52 2.72 5.9 789.1 3.28 3.06 21.3
Chris Sale 31 2020 214 1/3 2.9 2.45 7.6 981 2/3 2.85 2.69 29.7
Zack Wheeler* 30 2020 195 1/3 3.96 3.48 3.6 749 1/3 3.77 3.71 12.5
Patrick Corbin 29 2019 200 3.15 2.47 5.8 838 2/3 3.83 3.6 14.5
Yu Darvish** 31 2018 191 1/3 3.9 3.29 4.7 832 1/3 3.42 3.3 19.3
Johnny Cueto 30 2016 243 2/3 2.25 3.3 4.4 889 1/3 2.71 3.41 16.6
Jordan Zimmermann 30 2016 199 2/3 2.66 2.68 5.4 971 2/3 3.14 3.3 18.8
Cole Hamels 29 2013 216 2.79 3.05 5.1 1061 3.24 3.49 21.7
*Over seven seasons (DNP 2015-2016)
** Over six seasons (DNP 2015)

And here’s how they got paid:

The $100 Million Men, Part II
Player Age First Season Years Value Type
Carlos Rodón 30 2023 6 $144M Free Agent
Luis Castillo 30 2023 5 $108M Extension
Kevin Gausman 31 2022 5 $110M Free Agent
Gerrit Cole 29 2020 9 $324M Free Agent
Stephen Strasburg 31 2020 7 $245M Free Agent
Chris Sale 31 2020 5 $145M Extension
Zack Wheeler 30 2020 5 $118M Free Agent
Patrick Corbin 29 2019 6 $140M Free Agent
Yu Darvish 31 2018 6 $126M Free Agent
Johnny Cueto 30 2016 6 $130M Free Agent
Jordan Zimmermann 30 2016 5 $110M Free Agent
Cole Hamels 29 2013 6 $144M Extension

I do worry that by putting him on a chart that includes Strasburg, Sale, Corbin, and Zimmermann, I’ve placed some kind of horrible hex on the rest of Nola’s career. If that’s the case, I’m deeply sorry. At any rate, Nola is in line for a contract of either five or six years in length, worth at least $22 million a year. If the Phillies can get him for anything even close to what Gausman, Wheeler, and Castillo took, they should thank their lucky stars. If anything, Nola’s long track record of consistency, coupled with the recent loosening of purse strings in the free agent market this past year, should have him asking for more. Six years, $170 million doesn’t seem like an outrageous ask when compared to Rodón, or the contracts Hamels and Cueto signed close to a decade ago.

What happens if the Phillies balk at that figure? Well, there’s the Corbin example. The one thing a team can do to lessen the blow of losing a star free agent is to reinvest that money in another position of need. That’s what the Nats did when they let Bryce Harper walk — they signed Corbin for about the same AAV, and it worked great… for one year. Certainly Washington would not have won the World Series without Corbin.

How does that apply to the Phillies? Well, there’s an unlikely but realistic scenario in which they can build a top-notch rotation for 2024 without Nola. It involves Wheeler, Taijuan Walker, and Ranger Suárez all pitching up to expectations, and at least two of Andrew Painter, Griff McGarry, and Mick Abel establishing themselves as playoff rotation-quality starting pitchers in the coming season. That’s a lot of dominoes to knock down, but there’s an obvious path to the Phillies not needing Nola anymore.

In the event of injury, or Wheeler getting old, or the kids needing more time to develop, that aforementioned free agent class provides an alternative to re-signing Nola. Maybe someone like Giolito ends up being more cost-effective, or maybe the Phillies just end up liking another free agent pitcher better. As lucrative as the open market should be for Nola, it could theoretically be equally profitable to the Phillies if they let him walk.

But that’s an enormous risk. From the Phillies’ perspective, it makes sense to get Nola locked down before he hits the open market. Not only is he a popular homegrown player, the team’s window could not be any more open. The Phillies are coming off a pennant, and they now have seven players in their age-30 through age-33 seasons who are under contract for at least two more seasons on deals worth between $18 million and $27.3 million per year. The Phillies under Dave Dombrowski have not been the type to nickel-and-dime their stars, and now is not the time to start. No other team in baseball, except maybe the Mets, is in a worse position to sell letting a key player walk in order to free up some money. The only question now is exactly how much Nola stands to make.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Is Nola the most unsung superstar pitcher since Mike Mussina?

Last edited 1 year ago by tz
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Aaron Nola is the best shot of any pitcher under 30 reaching the 50 WAR threshold of anyone in the game today. I don’t think people realize how good he has been and how much everyone else has gotten hurt.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Bieber isn’t far behind. Through age 27, Nola had 19.3 WAR, Bieber has 18.8. Now, Nola put up like 11 WAR in age 28 and 29, so Bieber has a big hill to climb there, but they are on similar trajectories up to age 27.

1 year ago
Reply to  pezzicle

Yeah, it’s hard to make the argument for Bieber because his velocity and strikeouts trended down so hard this year. He also stopped walking guys but it’s not great sign when you lose 1.5 MPH off your fastball at age 27.

Pepper Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Of all pitchers younger than Gerrit Cole (excepting Trever Bauer since he’s… probably no longer an active major leaguer), Aaron Nola is the leader in career wins. With 78. After Kershaw, Wainwright, and Cole, Nola probably has the next-best chance of any active starting pitcher of reaching 200 career wins.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Aaron Nola is a potential Hall of Famer, simply because no one else can stay healthy and pitch at a 5-ish win level. The only other guy who seems like he could make it who is active and young today is Carlos Rodon, and that is very dependent on him continuing to stay healthy and crank out 5 to 6 win seasons.

Chris Sale was also the last guy I got excited about as a potential Hall of Famer pitcher, so obviously fate can intervene in unpleasant ways.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I would think Alcantara, Urias, Burnes, Cease, Webb, etc. have better chances of making it to Cooperstown than Rodon.

Aside from Randy Johnson, is there a recent HoF starting pitcher inductee with a less impressive 20’s than Rodon?

1 year ago
Reply to  tung_twista

You may laugh, but Rodon has been dominant for two consecutive seasons now and it’s not hard to see how he continues. Alcantara and Cease have to prove they can repeat an ace level performance, and while they are 3 years younger they have a very, very long way to go even if they repeat their performance. Cease somehow has less than 10 WAR, I think that’s true no matter what form you use. Webb is a year younger but I think only has 8 career WAR and hasn’t topped 5 WAR once. Burnes actually could be interesting if you buy that 2021 was closer to his true capabilities than 2022; he is 2 years younger than Rodon and I think he’s the only one who has a 2 year record comparable to him. Urías is fine but his biggest benefit was that he got started early; it’s hard to see his peak ever getting high enough.

Pepper Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Phil Niekro had a less impressive 20’s.