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There was more than stuff to like about Nola

August 7, 2014 - Mitch Rupert
There was so much to talk about by the time Aaron Nola was finished pitching in Reading on Wednesday night.

His velocity. The plus breaking ball. The work-in-progress change-up. How remarkably similar his delivery was to that of Pedro Martinez's.

The thought which wouldn't escape my head, though, is that I can't believe he was a college pitcher just two months ago. The polish, confidence and mound presence which exuded from Nola on a gorgeous summer night at FirstEnergy Stadium was inconceivable.

Since my first season covering the Williamsport Crosscutters in 2009, I've covered more than 75 percent of the pitchers the Philadelphia Phillies have drafted and signed out of college. Not one of them has come close to the command, the poise, and the presence Nola showed off Wednesday night in his Class AA debut.

The Phillies' first-round pick (No. 7 overall) in June's First-Year Player Draft lived up to the hype which surrounds a player taken as high in the draft as he was. By now, you already know the numbers: five innings, six hits, one run, four strikeouts. It's difficult to not pay attention to a player making his AA debut the same year he was drafted, especially in a minor league system as devoid of big league-ready pitching as the Phillies'.

But the impressive outing went far beyond just the numbers. It is easy to see why the Phillies and Director of Player Development Joe Jordan felt they could challenge Nola with this kind of promotion. The moment was never going to be too big for the right-hander, even in front of more than 6,300 fans, and 7,200 total people.

He's played in front of plenty of fans before in the baseball rabid SEC. An early May regular season game against Alabama drew more than 11,000 fans. The size of the crowd, or the size of the ballpark wasn't the concern.

Those in attendance were there to see how the stuff matched the hype. Even Ruben Amaro Jr. was there to watch.

Nola didn't disappoint. He could have given up six runs and those in attendance would have lauded his stuff. Phillies fans are looking for anything, and anyone, to give them a reason to be excited about the future of a fledgling franchise.

Nola is it. He's a sure-fire Top 100 prospect in all of baseball – just as a No. 7 overall pick should be. And added to the emergence of the likes of J.P. Crawford, Maikel Franco and Roman Quinn, there's beginning to be some hope at the top Phillies' system.

Touted as a player who could move through the minors very quickly, Nola was considered a safe bet as a prospect. He wasn't nearly as sexy a prospect as someone like Brady Aiken or Tyler Kolek, but closer to a sure-fire Major League player.

Don't be fooled, though. The stuff is fascinating. The fastball command was evident against a Harrisburg team which featured Cutter Dykstra, the son of former Phillies centerfielder Lenny Dykstra. Sixty-five percent of his 72 pitches Wednesday night were strikes. But maybe even more impressive were his misses. He was painting corners and looked to be trying to expand the strikezone when he could.

In my one inning sitting directly behind the plate, his fastball looked flat. It appeared he was throwing both a four-seam and two-seam fastball. The two-seamer is going to be the more important of the two as it'll help neutralize left-handed hitters. Video did show some arm-side run to the two-seamer, but nothing like what you used to see from the likes of a Kevin Millwood or a Vance Worley.

Although Nola has no problem commanding either side of the plate with his fastball, a good two-seamer won't give a left-handed hitter as comfortable a look as a constant four-seamer. In turn, it could make his change-up, which according to Baseball America was once a plus pitch, even that much better.

The change-up was definitely a work-in-progress in his first Reading start. He struggled to command the pitch, which showed some arm-side sink to it, the first time through the Harrisburg lineup. So he attacked the Senators primarily with his fastball during those first nine batters. He froze Dykstra twice with a fastball on the outside corner for a strikeout.

But maybe most impressive part of the night was the breaking ball Nola showed. He left it up a little too much for my liking over the course of the night, but with a fastball which topped out at 95 on one of the scouts' guns according to the Philadelphia Daily News' Matt Gelb, the breaking ball was the perfect complement pitch.

We can sit here all night and debate whether the pitch is a curveball or a slider. It shows more of a loopy hook like a curveball, but it's movement is more lateral than vertical, suggesting it's a slider. But whether it is one or the other is irrelevant to me at this point, because it's a true swing-and-miss pitch.

I don't know after one start if I can say Nola is bound to be a No. 1, 2 or 5 pitcher when he eventually does get to Philadelphia. For me, he still lacks some polish to be able to make that kind of determination. But I'd expect a player only 2 months removed from his last college game to lack that polish. And I expect, as Nola is approaching 170 innings for likely the first time in his life, that we may see a more polished and stronger version of him come spring training next year.

At this point, I think it's fair to say he could compete for a spot in the rotation come spring training, but that's based more on what the Phillies lack on the big league team than how good Nola actually is. But if you figure he has the chance to be stronger, fresher, and more polished by the time April rolls around next spring, you'd be obtuse to dismiss the idea of Aaron Nola in the big leagues completely to start the season.


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