A Cy Young for Aaron Nola? No Doubt.
Phillies fans entered the 2018 season with largely the same expectations as those of any fanbase suffering through a rebuild. Following a 102-win campaign in 2011, the Phillies descended into irrelevancy, bottoming out in 2015 with 63 wins and 99 losses. That year, they also traded 2008 World Series hero Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers. The future faced by the franchise could only be described as bleak, yet in reality, the seeds of future success had been sown. Though Hamels was gone, a then 22-year-old rookie hurler by the name of Aaron Nola would soon take his place. Little did the team know that its 2014 first round pick would go on to become an upper echelon starter, a stopper, a staff ace, and a Cy Young worthy pitcher.
Thus far in the season, the club has far exceeded expectations, though it has recently struggled. The Braves maintain a three-game cushion for the division lead, but both clubs are far ahead of schedule in what was expected to be a pair of arduous rebuilds. It is in this context that we witness the rise of the next great National League pitcher. In recent years, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have cast Cy Young size shadows over the league, combining for five of the last seven awards for the Senior Circuit’s top pitcher (Scherzer also won the American League Cy Young award in 2013). The status quo has been challenged this year as Kershaw has missed significant time for the third consecutive season and Scherzer has continued his incredible personal success.
Whether just or unjust, team success has always been a factor in awards voting. For all of Max Scherzer’s success this year, the Nationals have floundered. Jacob deGrom, another legitimate Cy Young candidate, pitches for the abysmal Mets. While he has been deGrominant, he trails Nola by over one whole point in bWAR and his 1.68 ERA will likely not be enough to offset his mediocre 8-8 record. No player has won a Cy Young award with fewer than 16 wins since Felix Hernandez in 2010. Ultimately, it will be the failure of the Mets team to give deGrom the support he needs that leaves him high and dry come awards season.
While context is key, performance is crucial. These days, everyone has a statistic of choice. Whether you prefer WAR and ERA+ or Wins and ERA, Nola covers all of the bases. His 15-3 record leaves him with the highest winning percentage in the league at .833. Although the bullpen blew Nola’s lead on Tuesday, he managed to lower his ERA to 2.10 and picked up another eight strikeouts through his seven-inning gem. He doesn’t strikeout batters at the same rate as Scherzer, but he now holds the lead in ERA over him and likely has enough time to win a few more games. The lack of strikeouts is likely the biggest knock against Nola, however per Fangraphs he has managed to limit hard contact to 24% of all batted balls, which is over 3.5% lower than his career average and has allowed him to pitch effectively without blowing the ball by batters. His primary method for dominance is not relying on an overpowering fastball, but instead by using it less than 50% of the time, opting instead to depend on his best-in-baseball curveball and increased usage of his change-up. On the whole Nola falls right between Scherzer and deGrom in the majority of statistical categories. Per Baseball Reference, he currently ranks in the top three in 17 major pitching categories and is number one in four of them. What separates him however, lies in the trend. Scherzer has struggled with command as of late, but Nola has gotten better as the season has progressed. Perhaps pitching at LSU prepared him for the dog days of summer. In addition to success in high temperature games, there is no doubt as to his success in high leverage games. In crunch time, Nola has been at his best, and down the stretch run that will only continue. Now tied with Scherzer by bWAR and leading by nearly a whole point according to ESPN’s WAR metric, the crux of the matter becomes this: do you value strikeouts from a perennial candidate or high leverage effectiveness from a young pitcher with a superior WAR in the middle of the playoff hunt.
Back in May I wrote about how Aaron Nola would silence all critics this year and cease to be underrated, but even after a torrid start, the community was slow to embrace the new ace. Through the month of June, the average sale price of Nola’s Bowman Chrome base level autographed rookie card in gem mint condition (as graded by Beckett Grading Service) was just a hair under $88.50 ($88.495). In July, the average sale price jumped to $95.07, but it wasn’t until August that it cracked triple digits. This month the same base autograph has sold at an average price of just over $120 ($120.25). Since the two aces first matched up on the 23rd, the card’s average price has been a whopping $136.02. Additionally, his orange refractor (limited to 25 copies) sold for just over $1,000 when accounting for shipping after Tuesday’s game. Currently, the high price on a Nola card is the bowman chrome autographed rookie red refractor (limited to five copies) in mint condition. Earlier in August one sold for slightly more than $2,500, far more than the equivalent card sold for at the end of May.
Thus far I’ve compared Nola to Scherzer and deGrom in terms of statistical production, and to conclude I’ll compare their card valuations. Interestingly enough Aaron Nola is the only ace of the three to have an autographed Bowman Chrome rookie. For those interested in deGrom, various Topps lines from 2014, most notably Heritage but also including Supreme, feature rookie autographs from the Mets stud starter. His base level Heritage in gem mint condition (often graded by PSA) is the closest comparison to Nola’s base Bowman auto, and the past month has shown that card valued at just over $175, with six sales in that neighborhood and one low-end outlier earlier in the month. Scherzer, the oldest and by far most accomplished of the three aces, is another rarity in that he doesn’t really have a “clear cut” top card. His first autographs emerged as early as 2005, but things really kicked into gear in 2008 when he finally debuted and earned his “rookie card” designation (as detailed prior to the 2006 season in partnership with the MLB Players Association). Both Topps and Upper Deck were quick to crank out high-end cardboard for Scherzer. On the Topps end, his Stadium Club card bears his auto, and Upper Deck brought out the big guns for Scherzer, including him in its high end SPx set. In recent months his sales have slowed, but over the past two years this card has increased in value nearly fourfold, originally selling at just over $100 and most recently selling at over $380 at the end of August. The fact that Scherzer doesn’t have much in the way of lower print run refractors buoys his base model but also weighs down his overall share price.
In strictly comparing performance to date, Scherzer has provided more value on the hill than deGrom and Nola combined, but sale prices take more into account than just performance. deGrom has been the media darling of the 2018 season, so his base model checks in at a higher price than Nola’s. Scherzer is the gold standard, and his base is rightfully valued at a higher price than either deGrom’s or Nola’s. Simple pricing data never paints the complete picture, so a price comparison can only take us so far, but by combining the stats we have with the price data we’ve attained, it is clear that while Nola’s value has increased exponentially in recent months, it still lags behind that of his Cy Young competitors. The market has yet to properly respond to Nola’s incredible performance in 2018, but what counts is that the newly minted ace is a just a few successful outings away from the first, of what promises to be many, piece of hardware in his trophy case.