How to explain Aaron Nolas success? Start with a trip to Baton Rouge to meet his family (2024)

BATON ROUGE, La.— Nestled in a neighborhood 2 1/2 miles from Louisiana State University’s campus sits a split-level home that bleeds purple and gold.

The humidity and temperatures approaching triple digits are more appropriate for mid-summer than this late May evening. Halfway across the country, AJ and Stacie Nola’s youngest son, Aaron, is less than 24 hours away from facing off against one of baseball’s best pitchers, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

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Everybody asks if it’s weird to watch him on TV, but it doesn’t really hit you until he’s up against a big name,” Stacie Nola said. “And then all of the sudden, it’s OK, this is for real.It’s very nerve-racking to watch him.”

Stacie has a routine when Aaron pitches. She always pulls up Gameday through the MLB at-bat app on her iPad so she knows the outcome of each pitch before turning to watch Aaron deliver the ball on the flat-screen TV in their living room. Meanwhile, AJ, who coached Aaron for most of his youth baseball career, tends to be more vocal when watching Aaron’s games. The day after Aaron starts, dozens of Google alerts fill Stacie’s email inbox with stories on his performance– good or bad. And when Aaron isn’t pitching, the Nolas will turn on MiLB TV to watch their eldest son, Austin, a shortstop-turned-catcher for the Marlins’ Triple-A New Orleans team.

Baseball has long been a family affair for the Nolas. The evidence fills the walls of the home where Aaron still lives in the offseason.Front pages featuring Aaron during his LSU career from the local newspaper. The draft card that listed Nola as the Phillies’ No. 7 overall pick in 2014. The lineup card from his first major league start in 2015. Austin’s plaque from being a member of the 2009 LSU national title team hangs near the staircase next to Aaron’s 2014 National Pitcher of the Year award.

In this hard-working community where the Nolas raised Aaron, 25, and his older brother Austin, 28, LSU, family and faith are the cornerstones of Aaron’s identity and the backbone of his success with the Phillies, which will include his first All-Star appearance this season.

“It’s hard to think where I’d be if I didn’t grow up there and go to LSU,” Aaron said.

Aaron started playing baseball at nine years old, but he wasn’t instantly enamored with the sport. While Austin would ask their dad to go outside and play catch as soon as he got home from work, Aaron wouldn’t have any interest in participating.

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Austin would beg me,” AJ Nola said. “Aaron didn’t want to go out there.”

Aaron fell in love with baseball watching his older brother play in tournaments. In between games, Aaron would throw with his dad and hit. He started pitching when he was 10. His natural talent immediately stood out. As he progressed, AJ Nola became an important part of his baseball journey. He coached Aaron from when he was nine through his freshman year at Catholic High.

He used to be my sacrificial lamb, unfortunately,” AJ Nola said. “I resist saying that, but we had very, very competitive baseball when he was growing up. His 12-year-old year was a very good team. I had maybe six, seven go play D-I baseball. Of course, Aaron took the brunt of all the hollering and screaming from me. A lot of parents felt sorry for him.”

Aaron admitted it was difficult at times playing for his dad because of the on-field yelling and his willingness to call him out during games. Austin didn’t want his dad to coach him. He felt that even if he gave 150 percent, it wouldn’t be good enough. Still, he believes his dad’s intense coaching style helped him in the long run.

“He wasn’t afraid to call me out in front of everybody,” Aaron said. “There were some car rides home that he’d really get into me and some car rides we wouldn’t say a word. I give a lot of credit to him.”

Added AJ Nola: “As a coach, you knew who to get on and who not to get on at a particular time. Aaron just seemed to let it brush off his shoulders. He has ice water in his veins.”

How to explain Aaron Nolas success? Start with a trip to Baton Rouge to meet his family (1)

Aaron Nola as a Little Leaguer. (Photo courtesy of Stacie Nola)

Aaron’s freshman season at Catholic High got off to a slow start. Stress fractures in his back, caused by growing 5 1/2 inches over summer, sidelined Aaron for three months. Aaron spent the next three seasons on varsity where he would help Catholic High win the Class 5A state title his junior year.

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“Hisbiggest thing through his years of high school was controlling the movement he had on the ball,” said Kyle Achord, Aaron and Austin’s former varsity coach. “Some days it was more, some days it was less. You had to talk through his starts of, hey, that ball is really running and sinking a lot so you’ve got to change where your sight plane is to get that ball where we need it to go. Most don’t have to deal with that as a high school pitcher because they’re trying to make it move.”

Going to LSU was a no-brainer for Aaron. It presented the first chance for the two brothers to play on the same team. There was a potential hitch in the plan, though. The Toronto Blue Jays drafted both brothers in the 2011 draft, Aaron in the 22nd round and Austin, a shortstop, in the31st round. Aaron considered going pro, but Austin’s decision to return followed by Aaron’s tough bout of salmonella in the summer kept him in Baton Rouge.

“I don’t know if Austin Nola hadn’t decided to come back for his senior year if Aaron Nola would have come to LSU,” said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri.

Looking back at it, I wasn’t ready to go out of high school,” Aaron said. “I know what the minor leagues are like now and getting up here, I’m glad I experienced (college).”

For Mainieri and LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn, Nola’s defining moments at LSU were two of his worst starts in a Tigers uniform.

Three weeks into his freshman season, Mainieri moved Aaron from the bullpen to the rotation, and he got his first Southeastern Conference start against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs shelled Aaron for five runs in the first inning. He didn’t allow another earned run in his final five innings.

“How many kids do you know that have that kind of maturity to put that negative inning behind them and then deliver five shutout innings after that? For me, that defined that we could really count on Aaron Nola,” Mainieri said. “I made a commitment that day that he was going to be a starter on the weekend in the Southeastern Conference from there on out.”

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In LSU’s NCAA regional game on a hot, muggy day against Sam Houston State during Nola’s sophom*ore year, the Bearkats scored five runs in the first inning. The defense’s three errors didn’t help. Nola’s pitch count climbed to 42 pitches. He was one pitch away from getting pulled when the Tigers’ center fielder made a diving catch with the bases loaded to end the inning. After escaping the first, Nola convinced Mainieri and Dunn to let him stay in. He needed just 60 pitches over the next six shutout innings as LSU rallied to win.

“That right there I think really solidified in my mind who that kid is because if he’s out of that game we don’t win that game,” Dunn said. “And for him to have the ability to not let that get him out of the game, it was special.”

LSU won the next night to capture the Super Regional title and advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Forget about the ability, forget about all the other stuff, command, his repertoire of pitches, the character of the man was proven on those two days to me,” Mainieri said.

He became the only pitcher in SEC history to win two Pitcher of the Year awards. Pieces of Nola’s legacy can be found throughout Alex Box Stadium. His awards line the wall in one of the team’s meeting rooms. His name can be found among the list of Tigers in Major League Baseball in the hallway outside the team’s clubhouse.

Aaron went from being known as Little Nola at LSU to one of the best players to ever play for the Tigers.

Until I met Aaron Nola, Aaron Heilman (at Notre Dame) was the best pitcher I ever coached,” said Mainieri, who just finished his 36th season coaching. “Aaron Nola is right there at the top of the heap–I’ve had so many great ones. Aaron Nola, he’s got it all.”

Separated by 3 1/2 years, Austin and Aaronhave faced each other three times in their baseball careers.

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The first time saw Aaron, part of the freshman team at Catholic High, pitch against the varsity squad as a pre-playoffs tuneup for the Bears. Aaron got to face the middle of the lineup, including Austin.

He’s like, ‘Coach, I’ve got no chance here. If I get a hit, I’m supposed to get a hit, if he gets me out …'” Achord said. “Of course, Aaron went strikeout, a fisted ground ball for an out and another strikeout and you could see right then, everybody’s like, wow, this guy’s got a shot.”

The only time Mainieri pitted the two brothers at LSU was in a fall intrasquad game. Austin doubled off the wall in the first at-bat. Austin’s second time up against Aaron, Mainieri put on a hit-and-run forcing Austin to swing no matter what Aaron threw. Aaron got him out.

I was mad because I wanted to hit,” Austin said. “I wanted to get another hit off him. It was fun.”

Because Austin was such a great influence on his brother, I didn’t want to create that competitiveness between them anymore,” Mainieri said of the one-game showdown.

Perhaps one day their professional careers will cross paths.They speak ofwhennotifthe two will square off in the big leagues. Austin’s numbers at Triple-A this season– .293 average, .368 on-base percentage,a .768 OPS– should put him atop the non-40-man roster options the next time the Marlins need to call up a catcher.

How to explain Aaron Nolas success? Start with a trip to Baton Rouge to meet his family (2)

Austin (left) and Aaron Nola (right) during their senior and freshman seasons, respectively at LSU. (Photo courtesy of Stacie Nola)

Competitiveness aside, the two brothers’ personalities are polar opposites.

Aaron is meticulous and precise. Unlike his talkative brother, he’s laid-back and quiet. Nothing bothers him. Well, almost.

“Only one thing bothers him, his brother,” Stacie said. “Austin is the only one that could get under Aaron’s skin. It made Aaron more competitive.”

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Over the winter, Aaron and Austin worked together building a set of drawers on the bed of Aaron’s pick-up truck. Their two different approaches, let’s say, left them at odds. Austin preferred throwing something together and making it look good; if it broke or needed fixing, they could do that later. Aaron wanted it done right the first time, making sure each piece fit properly.

He’s basically a man of routine,” Austin said. “He does his own thing, sticks to it. You ain’t getting him out of it.”

The first year Aaron lived in Philadelphia, as a rookie in 2015, he lived off Passyunk Ave. Every morning, Aaron would have breakfast at Melrose Diner, within walking distance of his apartment. Although he moved and has lived in the same Broad Street apartment building the last three seasons, Aaron still craves consistency. He found a nearby local diner where he eats before each home start.

When Aaron isn’t working out at Alex Box Stadium or fishing and hunting with his dad or brother in the offseason, he finds comfort in simplicity. He started building his own fishing rods to kill time while he was in Clearwater, Fla., rehabbing his arm injury in 2016. It takes him about three days from start to finish. Aaron has also picked up photography in the last two years. Hanging in the loft of the Nola’s home are a set of pictures he took of Sedona, Arizona, downtown Miami and from the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia.

But it all comes back to his relationship with his brother. Seated next to his wife, Michelle, at a CC’s Coffee House in New Orleans, Austin downplayed his influence on Aaron’s life and baseball career. But that’s not how Aaron sees it.

My brother taught me the most,” Aaron said. “He’s had the most impact.”

They weren’t always close. Their year together at LSU brought them together. Austin looked out for his brother. They are often inseparable in the offseason. Austin even catches Aaron’s bullpen sessions.

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“He and his brother have a special relationship,” Mainieri said. “He might not admit his affection for his brother, but he can’t fool me. I think he kisses the ground Austin walks on. And Austin was always good to his little brother, always encouraging him.”

How to explain Aaron Nolas success? Start with a trip to Baton Rouge to meet his family (3)

The Nolas (Photo courtesy of Stacie Nola)

Nola’s elite command is his defining characteristic. Yet there was no one moment in which this ability emerged. Nola remembers first possessing standout command when he started pitching around 10 years old.

Back then you’d just grab the ball and start to throw,” Nola said. “I never thought about my body movement or stuff like that. I guess the Lord blessed me with good command.”

As a long-armed, gangly high schooler, Nola would obsessively repeat his delivery every night in front of a mirror in the Nola’s living room. He learned to focus on his mechanics as he got older and his body changed.

Not many pitchers could ever throw to the outside corner at that age,” Austin Nola said. “They’d either throw it down the middle or yank it into the other batter’s box. He could always pinpoint it when he was like 10. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that the hardest pitch in baseball, which is the extension side fastball to a right-hander or left-hander, he’s one of the best in the game.”

When Nola pitched for Catholic High, Achord developed a bullpen program for every pitcher. As a freshman, Aaron would throw 20-pitch side sessions. A coach or player would track it on a sheet that listed each of his three pitches– fastball, curveball and changeup– and mark whether he threw a strike or ball. The sheets would be turned in to Achord or AJ Nola would review it.

AJ estimated he had nine pitchers on the freshman team. Most of the kids were throwing 8-9 strikes per bullpen; Aaron averaged 18-20 strikes.

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“That’s when we started recognizing it when he got to ninth grade,” AJ Nola said.

Nola continued to hone his natural gift. But he never deviated from his unique arm action.

His 3/4 arm slot and the flexibility in his arm and elbow make it difficult for hitters to pick up the ball out of his hand. It’s a combination not often seen. Of the 184 starting pitchers in Major League Baseball who have thrown at least 400 pitches this season, Nola has the lowest vertical release point at 4.94 feet.

Before his senior year of high school, the baseball team had their bodies tested by the New Orleans Saints’ physical trainer, checking each player’s shoulders, arms, elbows and legs. One flexibility test required pulling back on the throwing elbow until the player said it hurt.

“It was off the charts,” AJ Nola said. “Aaron never even flinched.”

None of Aaron’s coaches– his father, Achord, Mainieri or Dunn– were tempted to change his delivery.

I’ve had guys before where you look at it and go, ‘Wow, that’s a perfect delivery,’” Dunn said. “And they still blow out because of how hard pitching is on your arm. Genetics play a part in it. Work ethic, what you’re doing as an individual to make sure you’re maintaining everything you can to prevent injuries.”

Mainieri recalled watching Nola’s bullpen sessions at LSU when the right-hander would throw 25 consecutive pitches without the catcher moving his glove.

You can’t have better control than Aaron Nola has,” Mainieri said.“He makes it look easy. Alan and I both come from the same school of thought that when a player picks up a baseball and throws it, that’s his natural delivery. Don’t change it. Let him throw it the way he naturally throws.”

Nola’s greatest challenge through nearly four big-league seasons was the elbow injury that caused him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season. It was fair to wonder if mechanical adjustments were needed. The downtime and rehab process was a mental grind more than a physical one.

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“People asked always wondering if I was going to change my arm slot when I hurt my arm because it was too low,” Nola said. “I’ve always thrown from there so I’m not going to change it.”

Nowadays, Nola calls the injury a blessing. It brought clarity on how to keep his body healthy, including cutting back on throwing between starts, and it renewed the importance of his Catholic faith. Before his injury, he would ask himself, “Why did this happen? Why’d it happen to me?” after starts in which he struggled. During those weeks in Clearwater rehabbing, Nola attended chapel and bible study with other rehabbing Phillies. Learning how they handled situations left an impact.

How I handle things now, I really thank God for giving me the opportunity, to help me in good or bad games,” Nola said. “Baseball is our job, but it’s just a game. We’re not going to play it for our whole lives. There are people struggling with a lot more things than if we just have a bad game. That’s how I look at it now.”

Nola wasn’t thrilled with the decision.

His Opening Day start on March 29 ended after 68 pitches despite holding the Atlanta Braves to one run in 5 ⅓ innings. The Phillies would go on to lose the game after the bullpen allowed six runs in the final two innings. The next day, Nola met with manager Gabe Kapler in the visiting manager’s office at SunTrust Park. He was interested in hearing Kapler’s explanation for the early hook.

He was totally calm and like, eh, I get it,” Kapler recalled. “There was no fight. It was so cool. He was so cool with all of it. He’s very comfortable in his own skin.”

Kapler’s trust in Nola grew in the following months. Nola’s performance backed up the Phillies’ willingness to more consistently allow him to throw 100-plus pitches. His 123 innings pitched, 2.27 ERA and 0.98 WHIP trail only the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer in the National League. Meanwhile, his 5.7 WAR is second-best among MLB pitchers behind the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom (6.0).

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The more I watch him pitch, the more I just trust that he’s got this,” Kapler said. “Doesn’t matter what the situation is. I just trust that he’s got this. But it’s the lack of noticeable ego that really makes him unique.”

He is the youngest Phillies starting pitcher selected to the All-Star team since 23-year-old Cole Hamels in 2007. Before getting to know him during spring training, Kapler’s exposure to Nola was limited to an in-depth statistical look at the budding star. Nineteen starts into 2018, with one more on Saturday in Miami before the All-Star break, Nola is among the best in Major League Baseball, continuing a strong start to his career.

“Well, he’s already that good. It’s kind of a joke at this point,” Kapler said. “It’s not who can Aaron Nola be. It’s who Aaron Nola is. People for some reason don’t quite notice.”

Nola’s 11.2 career bWAR is the highest WAR of any player selected in the 2014 draft. He’s on the verge of becoming the fastest Phillie to record 500 career strikeouts. He’s one strikeout away from hitting the mark and would accomplish the feat in less than 500 innings. Nola doesn’t profile as the quintessential strikeout pitcher, but his 25.3 K% is tied 11th best in MLB history through a starting pitcher’s first five seasons. Stephen Strasburg, Kerry Wood, Robbie Ray, Mark Prior and Kershaw are the only starting pitchers to post a better K% to begin a career at Nola’s age or younger.

The development of his changeup this season, giving him a third plus-pitch, makes Nola less predictable.

For me, if you were going to draw up a prototype of a starting pitcher, he would fit the mold,” teammate Jake Arrieta said. He’s pitching like the ace, and I expect him to do that for a long, long time. He’s that good. Sometimes your reputation can take a couple years to build. In a couple years he might be a bona fide ace when in reality he was one in ‘18. He’s pitching like a No. 1, and that’s what we need out of him.”

AJ Nola, his cousin and her husband were at Citizens Bank Park the night of April 16, 2016 to watch Aaron pitch. The Washington Nationals tagged Nola for seven runs in five innings during the Phillies’ loss. Aaron was supposed to drive the four of them back to his Broad Street apartment after the game. They somberly waited for him in the ballpark’s family room.

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One hour passed. Then another. All of his Phillies teammates left, one by one. As midnight approached, the security guard informed them he was getting ready to leave. The lights were getting shut off. Finally, Aaron emerged from the elevator. He had spent the last two hours watching film, trying to figure out what went wrong.

“I was like, ‘Did you forget I was here? We were sitting here waiting for you,’” AJ Nola recalled. “I kind of blew up at him. So, he walks out, and I know he was upset because of the game and we were kind of upset. We walk out to his car. We didn’t have a whole lot to say.”

As they were about to pull out of the players’ parking lot, roughly 20 kids were still hanging at the gate after the Saturday night game. They called out to Aaron, asking for autographs. AJ Nola figured, given the circ*mstances, Aaron would ignore them and head home. Instead, he got out of the car and made his way over to the group.

“He went and signed every one of those autographs after he got beat up,”AJ Nola said.

How to explain Aaron Nolas success? Start with a trip to Baton Rouge to meet his family (4)

The Nolas at Austin’s wedding in the offseason. (Photo courtesy of Stacie Nola)

Aaron Nola takes his status as a role model seriously. His first glimpse of that responsibility came at LSU where baseball players, particularly a Friday night ace like Aaron, were treated as superstars. The team was active in community service work. Their games at Alex Box Stadium averaged more than 10,000 fans. LSU regularly had games broadcast nationally. All of it amplified the spotlight.

“He’s a legend here,” Mainieri said. “He was like Peyton Manning at the Super Bowl. And that was every day.”

As a kid, Nola idolized Ken Griffey Jr., Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan. He would emulate his favorite players’ mannerisms during backyard whiffle ball. Now kids collect his baseball cards and wear his No. 27.

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“Each year in the major leagues I’m understanding more of how we can impact kids,” Nola said. “It hits you when you see kids with a smile on their face. That’s how I was raised, too, by my mom and dad to respect people. I see more people wear my jersey. I can’t do anything else but thank them for when they give me credit.”

Five minutes from the family’s current Baton Rouge home sits a block that might as well be renamed Nola Avenue. Ten members of the Nola’s extended family own houses or property on that street.

Aaron is building a house on a lot that neighbors his parents’ own; on the other side of Aaron’s property, AJ Nola’s oldest brother is remodeling the house they grew up in. A cousin also lives on the block, and Aaron’s parents own a second plot of land located a couple lots down from Aaron’s soon-to-be permanent offseason home.

Aaron smiled.

“It’s all family – it’s pretty neat.”

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How to explain Aaron Nolas success? Start with a trip to Baton Rouge to meet his family (2024)
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