When our other prospect writers submit scouting reports, I will provide a short background and industry consensus tool grades. There are two reasons for this: 1) giving context to account for the writer seeing a bad outing (never threw his changeup, coming back from injury, etc.) and 2) not making him go on about the player’s background or speculate about what may have happened in other outings.
The writer still grades the tools based on what they saw, I’m just letting the reader know what he would’ve seen in many other games from this season, particularly with young players that may be fatigued late in the season. The grades are presented as present/future on the 20-80 scouting scale and very shortly I’ll publish a series going into more depth explaining these grades. -Kiley
Aaron Nola, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies (AA – Reading)
Nola was a standout all three years at LSU before going 7th overall to the Phillies in June. Nola is an interesting pitcher to evaluate because his size (6’1/185) and slot (low 3/4) both aren’t typical for first rounders, with only a handful of starters in the big leagues throwing from that low of a slot. Nola flashed three plus pitches (90-94, hitting 96 mph with arm side life), at least above average command and a rubber arm with no injury history to go with numerous big game performances. Understandably, in the longest season of his life (Nola didn’t throw last summer), the stuff Nathaniel saw isn’t quite as sharp, but Nola still has a chance to be in the Phillies’ rotation in 2015 with #2/3 starter upside if he can successfully neutralize left-handed hitters.
Fastball: 60/60, Curveball: 55/60, Changeup: 55/60, Command: 50/55 -Kiley
The seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft has already reached Double-A and has acquitted himself reasonably well there. I took in his third start at the level this past Monday in Bowie, attempting to get a feel for how much of his quick ascent stems from sheer overwhelming talent and how much should be attributed to polish.
Nola worked at 89-93 mph in this outing. Given that he threw 116 innings with LSU this year and an additional 40 in pro ball so far, it’s fair to wonder if he’s a little fatigued; pre-draft reports typically had him a tick higher (mostly 90-94 and touching occasionally up to 95+). There’s some deception in his delivery that helps him sneak the pitch by batters, and he can throw it to all four quadrants of the zone. While he comes from a fairly low 3/4 arm slot, he didn’t show too much action on the pitch–it occasionally had a touch of running life at 89-90, but the pitch was mostly straight otherwise. He added and subtracted from the pitch, sometimes following an 89 with a 93, but held his velocity through the outing. Without big movement or projection, it’s not going to be an out-and-out plus offering in the future, but if it picks back up a tick after an offseason of rest, it’ll be an above-average pitch that should work well if he spots it.
Nola’s breaking ball is his money pitch, a 76-79 mph sweeper with big tilt. Because of his low arm slot and extended release point, the pitch starts behind right-handed hitters’ backs, only to cross through the zone late. He gets a lot of called strikes with it because righty batters just can’t get the bat off their shoulders at the late juncture that they realize it’s going to find the zone. It’s a bit loose and could use some tightening into more of a true slider, but should be a clear plus offering in the future that enables Nola to finish off righthanded bats. He lacks confidence in it to lefties and needs to find a way to at least show it to them to keep them more off balance.
Nola’s change often earned credit for being an average or better offering in college, but that sort of quality was nowhere to be found in this outing. Easily Nola’s weakest pitch, it appeared playable but hardly interesting, arriving at 80-84 mph–a credible 9 mph of speed separation–and showing a bit of fade and sink at times. Neither the pitch’s movement nor his arm speed on it is consistent, and he didn’t show it to righthanded batters in the outing. Without the context of its former performance, I would’ve gone 45+ on the future grade, but with that knowledge, I’ll split the difference between that and the future 60 that Kiley (and many predraft reports) have pegged for its future. There are a wide variety of potential outcomes for the pitch.
As one might expect from a pitcher who made it to Double-A after just seven pro appearances, Nola has a good idea of what he’s doing on the mound and can spot his pitches well. While his mechanics are unconventional, they are relatively simple and he’s coordinated enough to repeat his motion. He didn’t command his off-speed pitches particularly well in the outing–they tended to either be get-me-over offerings or chase pitches far out of the zone–and he’ll need to get more precise in that area as he advances, but there’s no reason he can’t have solid-average command in the future. As noted above, the fact that he works just fastball-slider to righties and fastball-change to lefties is a bit of a concern–Nola may not have the raw stuff to find big success with such a predictable and narrow approach, especially when it comes to combating opposite-side hitters with his low arm slot and below-average changeup.
With an average fastball, above-average slider, and sound control, Aaron Nola could probably play a Todd Redmond role in a major league bullpen right now. That’s obviously quite impressive for a man who wasn’t a professional three months ago, but he’s obviously going to have to improve and surpass the Redmonds of the world if he is to make the Phillies look smart for picking him so high. There are plenty of reasons to like him–showing an above-average pitch, a second average pitch, and a third fringe-average pitch in his fatigued state is quite impressive–but there are also reasons to be skeptical that he’ll justify his selection, and they center on his lack of overwhelming attributes and his fairly weak profile against left-handed hitters (for what it’s worth, in a small professional sample, they’re hitting .286/.338/.443 off him, so it’s not as if his stuff is playing better against them than you’d expect from the raw descriptions).
Even with the assumption that Nola gets a tick back on his fastball next year and settles in at 90-94, it’s hard to see him having more than a #3 starter’s ceiling. If he settles in at a #3/#4 level quickly, that won’t be the flashiest of payoffs, but it’ll also be hard to really take issue with his selection–it’s not as if Mike Leake is thought of as a massive draft bust, after all. There’s a solid chance he could get to that level of performance, but the line between it and interchangeable back-of-the-rotation, Kyle Kendrick sort of output is fairly thin, and he’s not guaranteed to end up on the right side of it. While that might sound like a criticism, there aren’t exactly many players three months removed from amateur ball who are already clearly set up to be MLB-average regulars or starting pitchers, so it shouldn’t be taken as cause for alarm. Exactly how far Nola can get his changeup to come will be a big part of determining where he falls, as well as how he’ll learn to sequence his pitches and locations to keep hitters off balance.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.