Nola Shines, Bats Erupt as Phillies Take 2-0 NLCS Lead

Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Both the Phillies and Diamondbacks entered this Championship Series on a playoff tear, combining for just one loss during their four series wins. But in the battle for the NL pennant, one team’s good fortune would have to end, and so far, Arizona has been unable to deal with the buzzsaw that is Philadelphia’s roster. A day after a close loss headlined by the three home runs Zac Gallen surrendered, the Phillies hit another trio of dingers off the Diamondbacks’ no. 2 starter, Merrill Kelly, and it only continued downhill from there.

While playoff games have been increasingly defined by the reliever parades enabled by an abundance of off days, this game was a battle of two workhorse starters. Aaron Nola and Kelly both rank in the top 10 in baseball in innings over the past two years, and are consistently available to go deep into games. A lot happened in the final three innings on Tuesday, a stretch that exposed the stark difference in the quality of these two bullpens, but we can focus much of our attention on the rotation members dueling from each team.

Nola’s performance this year was uncharacteristically poor by his standards. He’s always possessed some of the best command in baseball, and he throws a hellacious two-planed knuckle curve as his strikeout pitch. But despite that, he had a 101 ERA- and 90 FIP- this season. His strikeout and walk rates were still great, but his home run rate ballooned, as he couldn’t keep his pitches away from the middle of the plate. His pitches in the “heart” zone, as measured by Statcast, were too predictable, costing him seven runs compared to average after dominating that area previously. It meant that his results had a hard ceiling despite having great stuff and avoiding free baserunners. But his six scoreless innings in Game 2 brought his ERA this postseason down to a tiny 0.96; more impressively, he hasn’t allowed a single home run in his three playoff starts. Let’s see how his arsenal shut down Arizona’s bats.

Corbin Carroll led off the game by reaching on a Trea Turner error (one he’d redeem himself for later in the same inning). Up came Ketel Marte, who slugged .636 in Arizona’s first two series while driving in critical runs in his team’s close victories in Milwaukee and Los Angeles. After fouling off two well-located changeups whose movement brought them from one side of the plate to the other, Marte may have been sitting high fastball, expecting Nola to try to climb the ladder for the strikeout. Instead, he went for the exact opposite – a curveball that went even lower and slower than the changeups that came before it, making Marte his first strikeout victim:

The diverse range of pitch shapes in Nola’s four-pitch arsenal (it’s usually five, but he only threw one cutter in Game 2) allows him to vary his pitch mix by using different offerings to match up with his opponents’ weaknesses. Let’s look at his three matchups against power-hitting first baseman Christian Walker to demonstrate. In the first inning, Walker was jammed by a belt-high breaking ball inside, hitting the skinny part of the bat and forcing a pop out. His next time up, Nola no doubt hoped to combine his fastball utility at the top of the zone with Walker’s proclivity to make weak contact up there, starting off with three high heaters to run the count to 1-2. In search of a strikeout, the natural options for Nola were to run the fastball even higher, hoping for a chase, or to get Walker in front of a low curveball. But he put that plan in his back pocket – he’d need it later. Instead, he did this:

Nola averaged 19 inches of horizontal break on his sinker in this start, four more than the league average for pitches in his velocity band. Nola’s sinker is primarily used as a groundball pitch against righties; over half of the batted balls against it in his career have gone towards the dirt. But it can also be used as a tool to keep hitters from swinging at it. It’s hard to fault Walker for taking that pitch given that it started out going nowhere near the plate, but the result was still a slow walk back to the dugout. This was one of three called third strikes Nola earned with his fastball variants, an impressive showing against a lineup that needed big hits to get back in the game. He continued with three more high fastballs, resulting in a called ball and two foul balls from Walker, which kept him alive.

Remember how Nola had shelved his barrage of high fastballs and low curveballs in Walker’s second at-bat? This was the moment he’d saved them for. Facing the order for a third time with a runner on second, Nola had to go outside of Walker’s familiarity with his arsenal. He started with a fastball up and in that Walker waved through, then dropped in a curveball in the same location that Walker popped out on in the first inning. Remembering what happened last time, Walker took the pitch, but he was down 0-2 in the count. Even in a down year, Nola was still dependable after getting ahead in the count, allowing a wOBA of just .206 after earning two strikes. Now it was time to pull the string. Nola allowed a career-high 12 homers on his breaking ball in the regular season, but by keeping Walker’s eyes off this pitch for three at-bats and hitting his spot just off the plate, he ended the threat and preserved his unblemished stat line:

Nola would be removed after the sixth, giving way to bullpen arms Jeff Hoffman, Matt Strahm, and Orion Kerkering to finish the shutout, but with just 82 pitches, he put together one of the best pitching performances of the postseason. His ability to use each of his pitches to execute a variety of game plans demonstrated the skill set that has garnered him Cy Young votes and made him 2022’s WAR leader among pitchers.

My breakdowns of his most important matchups primarily focused on his fastballs and curveball, but the contributions of his changeup shouldn’t go unnoticed. He didn’t land it in the zone as consistently as his other offerings, but it earned five swinging strikes to help neutralize the four lefties/switch-hitters in the Diamondbacks’ starting lineup. His excellent plate discipline metrics – landing over half of his pitches in the zone and running a 38% chase rate – were the result of one of Nola’s finest starts from a command standpoint, even in a career defined by great pitch location and execution:

Taking the mound for Arizona, Kelly’s stuff also looked impressive at times. His kitchen-sink approach, headlined by a plus changeup, kept runners off the bases for most of his outing – most of it. But like Gallen in Game 1, Kelly threw a couple of fastballs right down the middle that were ready to be taken deep into the seats. Hitters like Kyle Schwarber and Turner don’t miss the opportunity to crush 92 mph fastballs practically gift-wrapped for them, and they quickly put the Phillies ahead by a pair of runs. Schwarber would add a third solo shot to Kelly’s line his next time up, this time by turning on a well-located changeup.

Kelly was lifted with two outs in the sixth after walking a couple of batters, at which point the floodgates burst open for the Phillies offense. Lefty specialist Joe Mantiply allowed all three lefties he faced to reach base and long reliever Ryne Nelson wasn’t any more effective; they combined to allow 10 baserunners and six runs while recording just three outs. Meanwhile, the aforementioned trio of Phillies relievers combined for six strikeouts while giving an extra day off to the flamethrowers at the back of their bullpen – Gregory Soto, José Alvarado, Seranthony Domínguez, and Craig Kimbrel – who each boast a fastball with fearsome strikeout rates and an average velocity that tops 96 mph.

Both teams will get a travel day to reset; luckily for Arizona, the next three games will be at home. But it’s difficult to see them winning four of the next five games, especially with the current state of their pitching staff. Brandon Pfaadt will start Game 3, with a bullpen game to follow. With Pfaadt’s inconsistency all season and the team’s reluctance to let him go deep into games (he was lifted after 4.1 scoreless innings in the Division Series clincher against the Dodgers), they’ll have to rely on major contributions from the bullpen to stay alive. And while they’ve certainly performed for much of their current run, we’re still looking at a ‘pen that ranked in the bottom 10 in ERA, FIP, and fastball velocity during the regular season, compared to top-five numbers from the Phillies, who will also be looking for bullpen outs before their rotation resets to Zack Wheeler and Nola. Whether Arizona’s staff can right the ship will determine if they come back to Philadelphia, hoping to play spoiler, or see their postseason run come to an end.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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6 months ago

It would be an interesting and memorable story for Nola to pitch his team to a title but develop “forearm tightness” in the series and enter free agency needing TJ surgery.
He has a lot of innings on his 30 year old arm, at least by modern standards he is an Iron Horse.
I’m sure he would never admit it, but he must be aware he would be better off as a free agent if he hadn’t made the playoffs these past 2 years.

6 months ago
Reply to  offthewall

Not everyone gets Tommy John. Seems like most do, but it isn’t some foregone conclusion.

Ashburn Alley
6 months ago
Reply to  offthewall

You would find it interesting for Nola to have to have surgery? What is wrong with you? Wow one of the stupidest must ignorant comments ever