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Nola gets nod as Phils' Opening Day starter

Budding ace fans 3, yields 3 runs in Grapefruit League opener vs. Yankees @ToddZolecki

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Gabe Kapler sees what many see when he watches Aaron Nola throw a baseball.

He sees an ace in the making.

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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Gabe Kapler sees what many see when he watches Aaron Nola throw a baseball.

He sees an ace in the making.

View Full Game Coverage

It is why Kapler did not hesitate Sunday afternoon when asked about his timetable to name an Opening Day starter. He named Nola, who will be the franchise's youngest Opening Day starter since Dennis Bennett in 1964. It is why that honor might not change, even if the Phillies surprise people and acquire a former National League Cy Young Award winner like Jake Arrieta.

"He's our guy," Kapler said, following a 8-3 loss to the Yankees in a Grapefruit League game at Spectrum Field. "He is the man. He's earned it. He's unequivocally the right choice. He's an absolute gamer, grinder and a stud, and we're proud to have him on our roster."

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Nobody disputes that Nola, 24, is the best pitcher on the Phillies, but the numbers indicate he belongs in the conversation about baseball's best, even though he is never mentioned alongside Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Zack Greinke.

Nola, who allowed three runs in two innings thanks to an extra out provided by the defense, could be there before long, especially if he picks up where he left off in 2017.

Nola would love to be in that company.

"Yeah, who wouldn't?" Nola said with a chuckle.

Nola went 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA last season. He struck out 184 batters in 168 innings, averaging 9.86 strikeouts per nine innings. It is the third-best mark in Phillies history. Only Curt Schilling struck out more batters at a better rate. He averaged 11.29 strikeouts in 1997 and 10.05 strikeouts in '98.

Video: NYY@PHI: Nola on Spring Training start vs. Yankees

Nola took a step into elite territory last season because of a better fastball, a nasty curveball and an improved changeup. His fastball averaged a career-high 92.4 mph. His curveball was better than ever, particularly late in the season. It got 159 swings-and-misses, which ranked fourth in baseball behind Kluber (243), Zack Godley (191) and Lance McCullers Jr. (183). He got 67 swings-and-misses on the changeup. He got just 19 with the pitch in 2016.

Statcast™ numbers through three seasons show that high spin rates on curveballs correlate with more swings and misses and ground balls. Nola's curveball registered at 2,544 rpm, which is good, but not elite.

But Nola's curveball is among the game's best because it has more horizontal movement than any other starter in baseball. Essentially, it moves and sweeps across the plate. Nola's .258 slugging percentage on the curveball ranked 10th in baseball, just behind teammate Jerad Eickhoff. Batters whiffed at the pitch 40.3 percent of the time, putting him between James Paxton and Stephen Strasburg.

"There is no [comparison]," Kapler said. "Behind that screen [next to the Phillies' dugout], you can really see that thing take a sharp left turn out of his hand."

Nola battled a back injury in the first half last season, but once healthy, he hit his stride. He posted a .259 expected weighted on-base average in the second half. Statcast™'s xwOBA measures how a pitcher should fare based on walks, strikeouts and expected outcomes from exit velocity and launch angle. His second-half mark tied with Scherzer for seventh out of 92 pitchers that faced at least 250 batters.

A few other numbers suggest Nola already is among the elite starters in baseball: He ranked 14th in strikeout percentage (26.6 percent) between Greinke and Jose Quintana. He ranked 23rd in walk percentage at 7.1 percent (tied with Scherzer and Jacob deGrom). He ranked 24th in batting average against (.240), behind Michael Fulmer and ahead of Chris Archer.

If healthy, Nola will more than carry his load in the Phillies' rotation. If other starters take a step forward, Philadelphia's chances to "be bold" and compete in September could improve drastically. Nola already likes its chances.

"Everybody still thinks we're in the rebuilding stage, but I don't think anyone in here doesn't think we're going to compete this year," Nola said. "We're definitely going to be better than last year."

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Philadelphia Phillies, Aaron Nola