Pounding the Table for Aaron Nola

Or a primer on why it's hard to scout a changeup.

The case for Aaron Nola is pretty simple.

If you redraft 2012, how highly does Michael Wacha go? He probably doesn't tempt the Astros at No. 1, but he's in play from No. 3 down, right? What team wouldn't want a guy with an ERA that's been 27 percent better than the rest of the league in his 138 career innings?

So why did Wacha slip to the Cardinals at No. 19? Why did four different college pitchers get drafted before Wacha?

It's all about the change. I talked about it in a TCB mailbag here. From that piece:

The problem with evaluating him, from a scouting perspective, is that his best pitch may be his changeup. More than his fastball, that change gives him a distinct ability to change speeds and keep hitters off-balance. A change like that thrown with Wacha's control can be devastating.

But, how can you tell whether the change is a big-league pitch or whether a pitcher with a decent change is taking advantage of unimpressive hitters? With a curve, a slider and maybe a fastball, you can see the movement, see the speed and tell how that might play.

With a change, everything is predicated on what it doesn't do. It may look like a fastball coming out of his hand, but it's slow. When is it thrown? How is it sequenced? All that is just as important as how good the actual pitch is.

Those same concerns hang over Nola. He's been very good for the LSU Tigers (though his team got beat by a mean group of Cougars last weekend). He's got great control, walking just 27 batters in 116 innings this season. That and his miniscule 1.47 ERA made him a finalist for the 2014 Golden Spikes Award, given to college baseball's best player each season.

He features a low 90's fastball, a curve and a changeup. At the college level, his excellent control mean his pitches play up, even as his actual "stuff" is underwhelming. Keith Law went so far as to say his change is "just average."

How could a guy rack up 134 strikeouts in the SEC and have average stuff? That's the question scouts have to answer. Will he play up, like Wacha did? Or, will Nola get exposed once he sees more advanced hitters?

Thinking about it, Wacha is a bad comparable for Nola. The guy he probably should be compared to is Dallas Keuchel. Coming out of Arkansas, Keuchel had a reputation for being a better pitcher than his "stuff" played. He also struggled in the minor leagues, despite posting very stingy walk rates.

As Keuchel slowly rose through the ranks, he learned to harness his control and make his change, which was "just average" in the minors, into a very effective pitch.

Will Nola be that guy?

I think so. If Houston wants to add quality depth to its system they go for a guy like Nola. He can get to Houston quickly, joining Appel, Correa and Domingo Santana for a full-on youth movement. He fits the profile of this organization, eschewing the walk and tunneling his pitches. Oh, and he can probably be signed for under slot.

There's a lot to like about Aaron Nola. He won't be the most exciting pick Houston could make. But, like Wacha, he could turn out to be one of the best players in this draft.

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