Nola's late-season surge carries over into spring debut

February 25th, 2024

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Sometimes, it’s the simple things.

struggled the first several months of the 2023 season. The urgency to get things right only increased as the postseason approached. Then, one day late in the season, Nola said Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham suggested he stop looking at the pitch timer on the right side of home plate, particularly out of the stretch, and instead look at the pitch timer on the left. Nola had a 2.27 ERA in his final six starts, including the postseason. He had a 4.62 ERA in his first 30.

“You pretty much throw where your eyes go and where your head goes,” Nola said. “That was a big key.”

Nola pitched two perfect innings in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over the Yankees in a Grapefruit League game at BayCare Ballpark. He struck out three.

Nobody should make too much of anybody’s first spring game, but Nola has never been a good Spring Training performer, and he looked sharp. Since his first big league camp in 2016, Nola has a 5.34 ERA (73 earned runs in 122 2/3 innings) in the spring. Nola’s late-season mechanical adjustments and comfort with baseball’s new rules have many people believing he will enjoy a resurgence in 2024.

Perhaps Sunday offered a glimpse.

“He has incredible feel of what’s going on,” Cotham said. “Last year, he felt like he couldn’t see where he wanted to go. His eyes were late. His stride was a little across his body. His upper body was a little closed off. We can see stuff like that with some of the stuff we have. He was watching video. I was watching video. He’s looking at the right pitch clock. So when a runner’s on base, he’s coming set, he’s looking at that clock, the hitter, the runner, the hitter, that pitch clock. So it kind of nudged [his front shoulder] this way [to the right].”

But when Nola started to look at the timer on the left, it squared up his body, which helped him be online as he threw to the plate. It meant better pitches, especially to his glove side, meaning inside pitches to left-handed hitters and outside pitches to right-handed hitters.

“You could look at the data and say stay closed more, or stay open more, or just stride online more,” Cotham said. “But with him, it’s finding something inside the game to help him slow it down. So I think it’s two-fold. It helped his delivery, but it also helped him manage the game better. Because right around that time, he also added a slide step. It lowered the volume of the game so he could think more clearly.”

Nola freely admits that he struggled last season with the introduction of the pitch timer. He did not like it. In the past, if he had runners on base, he slowed the game to a crawl.

Nola couldn’t do that anymore. He focused too much on the timer.

Nola said those issues are in the past.

“This year, just focus mainly on the hitter,” Nola said. “The hitter and myself, delivery-wise and pitches, rather than the clock. It feels better this year. My main focus is on the hitter, and that’s how it should be.”

Nola introduced the slide step on Aug. 21, around the time he made the pitch-timer adjustment. Before the slide step, runners gained 15.4 feet from the time he started his delivery to the time he released the ball.

A foot can make a huge difference to Nola’s mindset, a catcher like J.T. Realmuto and a team’s willingness to run.

“I’m glad we were able to find a little something because it helped late in the season,” Nola said. “I hope it carries over throughout the whole season.”

Asked last June for tips he would give parents looking to help their kids play baseball, Cotham said, “It’s very simple, but look exactly where you’re trying to throw it as much as possible. … Your eyes dictate where you stride, your eyes dictate where you walk, your eyes dictate where your balance is. So if I’m looking somewhere and my eyes are lazy or late, I can get off balance.”

A few months later, Cotham applied the same principle to Nola’s delivery.

“If my eyes are always this way [looking right], then my body is kind of going this way,” Nola said. “It was a big help. I never thought of that, but that’s Caleb for you right there.”