The Mariners have had three players make their MLB debuts in the past month and a half. Most recently, 31-year-old Ryan Court has hit the ball real hard or whiffed in his first eight PAs and not much in between. 25-year-old Tim Lopes had a fairly heart-breaking debut, first sneaking in as a defensive replacement, then going 0-for-1 with a walk, a stolen base, and, ultimately, a scary HBP to the jaw that landed him in concussion protocol. That leaves 29-year-old Austin Nola as the longest-tenured and most successful rookie on the Mariners active roster.
Of course, that “lengthy track record” is like being the senior advisor on an Apex Legends team. Nola has been excellent in his first 30 MLB games, racking up a .313/.371/.547 line and a 144 wRC+ in 71 PAs. He’s done this playing parts of games at five positions (C, 1B, 2B, 3B, and LF), looking like an Isaiah Kiner-Falefa type true UTIL. If needed he can probably spell at SS too, considering he made it all the way to 83 games there in AAA over the past few years. After watching Andrew Romine, Taylor Motter, and Luis Sardiñas wave soggy sesame sticks at the plate, any amount of pop from the plate is intriguing. Nola was tearing it up in Tacoma, so big league success isn’t astonishing, but it’s never easy to know what to believe in the PCL, least of all this year.
Nola has been a pleasant surprise, but I’d be trepidatious of pencilling him into any 2021 plans right now. An easy warning sign is Nola’s .405 BABIP, but sometimes that’s just part of a player making spectacular contact all the time. Nola isn’t getting purely lucky, but even at this early stage we’ve seen him get some best-case scenario outcomes.
His exit velocity thru his first 46 MLB batted ball events is a mere 86.2 mph - a fair tick below MLB average of 87.5 mph. That’s not the end of the world - we’ve seen players succeed with below-average pop thanks to exceptional speed (Mallex Smith) or extremely efficient launch angles (Omar Narvaez). But Nola hasn’t displayed either thus far, and an xwOBA of .278 and an xBA of .230 compared to an actual wOBA of .384 and BA of .313 is, as the kids say, suss.
Similarly, DRC+, which Baseball Prospectus developed to measure offensive prowess in the same fashion as wRC+ and OPS+, takes quality of contact into account when awarding credit to a player. It sees Nola as only an average hitter - a 104 DRC+ - compared to a 144 wRC+ or 146 OPS+. This matters less to someone like Romine or Dylan Moore who are capable defenders at several positions and have base-stealing speed. Nola is a good athlete, but he’s never swiped more than 10 bags in a season. Like his teammate and defensively adrift UTIL Tim Beckham, he’s gotta hit to stick, and while teams are currently coming right over the plate to him pretty consistently, he’s not going to be receiving meatballs early and often for long.
You may ask “Does picking nits on a 29-year-old rookie having a dream debut after toiling in the minors for ages make you feel like a big man, John?” and to you I say no, I feel kinda lousy about it. The fact that Seattle started three catchers in one game last series and essentially five UTILs (Nola, Moore, Court, Beckham, and Kristopher Negrón) in another delights me. They won both times! It’s hilarious. Nola and the recent parade of borderline big leaguers have made the Mariners amusing in a way terrible teams need to be to sustain the spirits of their fans. Austin Nola may fade down the stretch, but for eight years it seemed increasingly likely he’d never see a stretch to begin with. That’s still worth something.