Pocket aces. It’s the best hand you can hope to start with in poker. And in a lot of ways, it’s the most appealing starting point for a contending baseball team, too. The problem is how difficult it can be to assemble the aces and bank on them. As the New York Mets know, having them doesn’t mean they will be healthy and at the top of their game at the right times. But now, in October, when the cards are laid on the table, the Philadelphia Phillies have them.
Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are a terrifying tandem atop a rotation now just seven wins from a World Series title. Wheeler cut through the San Diego Padres lineup like a hot knife through butter in NLCS Game 1, and Nola starts Wednesday’s Game 2. So far this postseason, he has allowed one run in 12 2/3 innings, and that was unearned, the product of first baseman Rhys Hoskins prematurely fist pumping what should have been an inning-ending double play.
How the Phillies assembled a new dynamic rotation duo to revive playoff hopes
If the Phillies reach the World Series, it may be on the back of the two-headed monster on the mound — which was the plan, back in 2011, when the last great Phillies teams came up short and then collapsed despite the efforts of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
This one came to fruition less conspicuously than the rotations that headlined the Phillies teams at the beginning of the 2010s. Nola was homegrown, a star pitcher who labored on rebuilding and stagnant teams and may still be underappreciated.
Wheeler was a free agent signing after the 2019 season, but a less splashy one than … [insert judgment here]. Than he should have been? Than we now know he should have been? The reality is his potential was still untapped when he hit the market. He showed ability with the New York Mets, but also missed 2 1/2 years with injuries and struggled to hit his ceiling in Queens. The Phillies helped him take up residence on the ceiling. He finished second in Cy Young voting in 2021, having fully developed the confidence to attack in the zone, and produced similar results this season despite missing a few starts.
In a lot of ways, Wheeler and Nola have similar plans on the mound. They can both wield two different fastballs, though in this strikeout-heavy era they lean on four-seamers that “run” enough — move toward the arm side — to at least limit contact when they are hit without being full ground-ball pitches. As a great many pitchers narrow their arsenals and lean on breaking pitches, the Phillies’ aces don’t veer that far from the traditional workhorse. They challenge hitters with well-placed fastballs and complement that with breaking stuff, instead of vice versa. Out of Wheeler’s (wildly efficient and even more effective) 83 pitches in Game 1, 65 were fastballs.
How good have Wheeler and Nola been?
The Phillies co-aces are alerting the wider baseball world to their excellence this postseason, and it may prove to be a watershed moment. Neither had played in October before 2022, so this is a long-awaited turn on the biggest stage. It’s also a chance for Nola, in particular, to display true talents that have been obscured by circumstances largely outside his control.
Over the last two seasons, Nola’s dominance hasn’t shown up in the ERA column as you would expect based on the underlying numbers. He strikes out the world, walks almost no one, and limits hard contact, to the point that metrics focused on those more predictive indicators of performance rate him as the most productive pitcher in baseball this season. The 3.25 ERA is … less sparkling.
A lot of that had to do with the Phillies’ lackluster defense. Nola’s dynamite curveball and changeup, big parts of his repertoire, tend to be hit on the ground. For worse than league average in 2021 and 16% worse than league average in 2022. Statcast metrics also showed that Nola and Wheeler could have reasonably expected better results than they wound up getting. Among 89 pitchers who induced at least 350 grounders over the past two seasons, only 10 had results worse than Nola’s compared to what was expected based on the batted balls.
The Phillies defense is still not good, but it’s less of a disaster than it was even earlier this season. And under the microscope of the postseason, everyone is starting to see just how dominant Nola and Wheeler can be.
Using Fielding Independent Pitching — a metric that estimates ERA based on only strikeouts, homers and walks — we can get a rough measure of dominance and a glimpse at just how rare it is to find a duo like this fully armed and operational.
Only 13 teams since 1995 have had two pitchers throw at least 150 innings with FIPs of 2.90 or better, as Wheeler and Nola did this year. Now, that’s an arbitrary line set to where this duo weighed in, but it drives home the elite territory they are in. You recognize the recent duos: Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander for the Astros, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw for the Dodgers.
Having them locked in at the same time doesn’t guarantee a World Series by any stretch, but it’s a dangerous prospect for anyone who has to face the Phillies. It’s a luxurious starting point — one the Phillies will happily take.