Why the Phillies, who’ve changed so much, bet big on Aaron Nola, who’s changed so little

PHILADELPHIA — It started like most big-league careers do — an unexpected request to talk to the manager. Aaron Nola was promoted to the majors from a hotel lobby in Rochester, N.Y., one Friday morning. The right-hander from Louisiana did not choose the Phillies. They selected him. That is the randomness of this whole thing, the idea that Nola could now spend more time with the Phillies than any pitcher ever in the franchise’s 140-year history. The Phillies had the seventh pick in the 2014 amateur draft. They liked the idea of Nola as a steady collegiate pitcher who could quickly rise to the majors.

And he did. The day he came to the Phillies, he joined a rotation that included Cole Hamels, Adam Morgan, David Buchanan and Jerome Williams. “Yeah,” Nola said Monday after he signed a $172 million contract. He laughed. “I remember that like it was yesterday. It’s changed. I mean, every aspect of the team has changed.” A total of 153 different men have thrown a pitch for the Phillies since Nola debuted July 21, 2015, and he is the only constant.

It’s what still drew him to the Phillies even when 29 other teams could woo him. He had no connection to this place as a 22-year-old prospect but now he has the context.

“I’ve been blessed to be a part of a rebuilding era all the way to where we’re at now,” said Nola, 30. “So that’s pretty special to me to be able to be a part of that, to see it. How many players get to go through that? It just makes me appreciate it that much more.”

Aaron Nola has made 235 regular-season starts and nine postseason starts for the Phillies. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

This sport is littered with bad contracts to good pitchers whose bodies begin to fail them in their 30s. The Phillies have never signed a pitcher to a seven-year deal and, with Nola, they looked at it as the cost of doing business. They reconciled a longer term with what they determined as a palatable annual salary.

Maybe Nola could not find the $200 million guarantee his camp used as an asking price last spring, according to major-league sources, but on the open market he found legitimate interest at a time when teams crave durable starters. It wasn’t just the Atlanta Braves, but industry sources believed they were the strongest threat to the Phillies.

“Well, it was most important that we kept him for ourselves, but I sure wouldn’t have wanted him to go to Atlanta either,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “Somebody that’s in your own division. There were other clubs that were interested in him, too. There were a lot of them. We would not look forward to facing a pitcher of his ilk against us by any means.”

Nola played coy Monday when asked about the free-agent process. “I’m just glad it didn’t go longer,” he said. The Phillies knew how Nola felt and they did not push the issue five days after the World Series ended — when any team could begin to talk to Nola. Assistant general manager Ned Rice called Nola’s agent, Joe Longo, and reiterated the club’s interest. But the Phillies knew Nola’s camp wanted to see what everyone else had to offer.

Dombrowski admitted he was never “confident” that the Phillies would re-sign Nola because all it takes is one huge offer from another team. But, inside the front offices at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies always thought they had a decent chance because they knew who Nola is.

“I’ve always been a Phillie,” Nola said. “This is kind of the only place we kind of had our eyes set on. It’s the most comfortable place for me. Everybody in this organization is so good and has been so committed to winning and committed to the players. The relationships that I’ve made, it’s going to last a lifetime. I feel like it’d be hard to get away from those people. Obviously, I’m very grateful to be back.”

And that’s why, as Nola was the only one to emerge from a decade of changes and failures that defined Phillies baseball, the team was willing to bet on him aging well in the next decade.

He has not changed through it all.

“Literally the same guy,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said, “which is amazing.”

Amaro was the general manager when the Phillies drafted Nola. He remembered going to a Louisiana State game in May 2014. “I just watched how he went about his business,” Amaro said. Nola long-tossed for about 90 minutes. The Phillies, through background work done by veteran area scout Mike Stauffer, knew that Nola’s parents had not pushed him to throw more than he should. He took proper summer breaks. He had a routine. He cared and preserved his arm in a meticulous way even then.

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Aaron Nola delivers in May 2014. The Phillies made him their top draft pick that June. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Nola threw a four-hit shutout against Alabama with Amaro in attendance. He dotted his fastball, then threw a little harder in the eighth and ninth innings.

“And,” Amaro said, “I’m going, ‘Wow.’ He had thrown a lot of pitches. But he had that extra gear in there. It didn’t rattle him. Calm. The face that you see on the kid now was the same exact face as when he was throwing then.”

It’s 2023 and there are now more detailed ways of measuring a pitcher. The Phillies have studied Nola’s delivery and how his body works. There are no guarantees because throwing a baseball at a high velocity is an unnatural act for humans. But Amaro’s recollection of that night in Baton Rouge is emblematic of why the current front office was willing to wade into uncomfortable territory with the seven-year contract for Nola.

“It starts with his work ethic and his dedication and the desire to be great for a long time,” Phillies GM Sam Fuld said. “I think when you evaluate these sorts of things, you have to start with the makeup. And I don’t know if anybody in the game has better makeup than Aaron Nola. It’s the routine and the consistency. It’s day in and day out. Good outing or bad outing, it’s the same person and it’s the same desire to be good the next time he grabs the ball.”

The Phillies asked Nola to make some small changes last summer when things conspired against him. His slide step deterred runners and provided Nola with a calmer demeanor with men on base. He was willing to adapt.

“That plus the routine, I think is a great foundation for long-term durability and long-term success,” Fuld said. “The delivery, we’ve analyzed. But it really starts with the human being. And I just don’t know if you can draw up a better human being for long-term sustainable success.”

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Aaron Nola and his wife, Hunter, pose for a photo at Monday’s news conference. (Chris Szagola / Associated Press)

Nola will face different kinds of adversity as he attempts to be durable into his 30s. The clock comes for everyone. He will become a father in April; his wife, Hunter, is expecting a girl. That will change Nola off the field. Otherwise? “I don’t see any change at all over the 10 years that I’ve known him,” Amaro said. Maybe that is hyperbolic.

“There have only been two things that have changed,” said third-base coach Dusty Wathan, who managed Nola at Double A in 2014. “He went from a camper shell on the back of his truck to a converted Sprinter van to camp. And the way he makes his coffee.”

It’s a little fancier now, specialty beans and handheld grinder all at his locker. But Nola knows that locker and he knows it’s his for many more years to come, and that is all that matters.



The Phillies and Aaron Nola — forever linked: What the $172M deal means for both sides

(Top photo: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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