Sometime this season, Austin Nola’s picture made it to the side of T-Mobile Park, ensconced among franchise players like Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi. I know this because the last time I was there, I almost walked into two ladies on the sidewalk who were excitedly taking picture after picture of Austin Nola’s enormous visage. I wish now I had stopped and asked if they were family (how could they not have been family), and if so, congratulated them on Austin’s season. For as feel-good a story for us as Austin Nola is—career minor-league vet gets his MLB shot and earns regular playing time!—I can only imagine what it must be like to be his family, celebrating Aaron’s success while hoping year after year the other son would get a chance.
In acquiring players to supplement their developing core, the Mariners have targeted players who have been squeezed out of roles due to talent overload (Domingo Santana) or from organizations that are not maximizing what they believe to be a player’s true skillset (Omar Narvaez, Austin Adams, Connor Sadzeck). Austin Nola fits into the latter category, having played seven seasons in Miami’s organization without earning a shot even with the pitiable Marlins. To be fair, his numbers weren’t exactly eye-popping in the minors; playing the role of light-hitting shortstop, Nola walked a lot, didn’t strike out much, and hit for exactly zero power, with a double-digit ISO.
This might not have been a problem, except Nola wasn’t a great shortstop. His coaches with the Marlins organization suggested a change to catcher, another place his bat would be camouflaged, and so Nola dutifully went about learning the most difficult position on the diamond, which, as can be expected, did his bat no favors; his wRC+ in 100 PAs at Triple-A New Orleans in 2017 was 38. He rebounded at the level in 2018, dragging his numbers up across the board, and finished with a 103 wRC+ in his age 28 season.
And then, two things happened to change the course of Austin Nola’s career. One, MLB switched to the “juiced” ball; and two, after seven years in the Marlins system, Austin Nola signed a minor-league deal with the Seattle Mariners, partially on the recommendation of new infield coach and longtime member of the Marlins organization Perry Hill, who raved about Nola’s work ethic. In the same PCL parks Nola had played in with the Marlins’ AAA team, suddenly the new ball started jumping off his bat. After hitting a grand total of 15 home runs in the years 2012-2018 combined, Nola hit seven (7) in his 200+ PAs for Tacoma, with another 10 at the major-league level. His HR/FB%, having sat around 5% for his entire minor league career, jumped to 12.5% at Triple-A, and 14% after he was eventually summoned to Seattle in mid-June to replace Edwin Encarnacion.
It’s not entirely fair to pin Nola’s entire offensive improvement on the ball, however. Nola’s launch angle is an average of 16 degrees, which, while far from the echelon of the man he replaced (Encarnación’s 22.5 is the sixth-highest in baseball), is still good for a top-100 finish among all 500 or so MLB batters. Because it’s his first year in the bigs, we don’t have any film nor advanced data to compare that to, but it’s not outrageous to suggest that Nola is making an effort to hit the ball in the air. After putting the ball on the ground almost half the time for most of his career, in 2017 Nola’s fly ball rate jumped to 35% and continued to climb from there, topping out at 40.9% in the bigs. His first big-league homer came courtesy of Wade Miley and the Crawford Boxes, at just 94 mph but a 34.58-degree launch angle (for context, the record this year is 43, a record held by two Dodgers):
After going on a tear to begin his professional career, Nola finished the season right around a league-average hitter; BP gave him a 102 DRC+, while FanGraphs awards him a wRC+ of 114. That’s about in line with what John noted back when he wrote up Nola after his scorching start, pointing to his slightly below-average exit velocity (87.1) and expected batting average (XBA) of .229.
There’s room for improvement in his plate discipline, as well. Statcast’s new Swing/Take measure shows that while Nola is exceptionally disciplined at waste or chase pitches—he only swings at 12% of chase pitches, compared to a league average 24%—he swings a little less at pitches in the heart of the plate or the shadow zone than the average batter. Swinging a little more at meatballs could boost Nola’s barrel rate, which is just 3.4%, or about half of the MLB average. That’s power Nola needs to tap into if he’s going to hang out mostly at first base, which is where the clearest vacancy lies until beautiful freak Evan White is ready. He also needs to work on how he attacks breaking pitches; Nola whiffed almost 30% of the time against sliders and curves this season, with an equal K% of close to 30%. As pitchers become more familiar with the book on Nola, he likely won’t see the 60% fastball rate he saw this season.
The underlying metrics show there’s room for improvement with Nola, and it’s especially concerning that he doesn’t seem to hit the ball hard compared to the results he’s gotten. But he now has the benefit of a big-league staff and resources to help him figure out how to maximize his skillset, and while “keeping first base warm for Evan White” might not sound like a glamorous job, it’s a big-league job nonetheless, guaranteed in as much as anything in the Dipoto era, or baseball itself, is guaranteed (Dipoto did mention Nola as part of the plan for next year in his Town Hall meeting). Austin Nola has gone from a career minor-leaguer who might have gotten a sympathy cup of coffee with the Marlins this season to a daily player people can slot into their fantasy lineups (dat catcher eligibility tho) with his face on the side of an MLB park. And that’s pretty cool.