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40 in 40: Austin Nola

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You can find backups in the darndest places

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners took a flier on Austin Nola during the 2019 off-season on the recommendation of infield coach Perry Hill, who had known Nola when he was a member of the Marlins’ organization and raved about the converted catcher’s work ethic. As a 28-year-old journeyman player, opposing scouts likely didn’t scout Nola too heavily in preparing reports, giving Nola the element of surprise in his debut year. In 2019, as an unknown quantity to the league, Nola was shifted against less than 2% of the time. When he was shifted against (all five times), his wOBA dropped to .138 from .342; however, his lower-than-league-average ground ball rate (40%) and ability to hit to all fields (30% to left, 30% to right, and 40% up the middle) should help him remain fairly shift-proof.

Despite the slightly elevated strikeout rate, Nola’s profile suggests he has good plate discipline; in fact, he could afford to swing at pitches in the heart of the plate more often.

Baseball Savant

His chase rate is particularly impressive—12%, or half of MLB average. When he does chase, he opts for pitches he can make contact with, and thanks to his ability to hit to all fields, often winds up being able to shoot a pitch to the gap.

The ability to continue to hit to all fields, make contact all over the zone and get on base will be important for Nola in 2020, as his slightly-below average exit velocity and drastic gap between slugging percentage (.454) and expected slugging percentage (.369) suggest this power party might not be here to stay. Like Omar Narváez, in 2019 Nola found the delicious combination of the juicy baseballs and an above-average launch angle to pay dividends in double-digit home runs—his 17 combined taters at Triple-A and MLB are more than he’d hit in his lengthy minors career combined. Nola does hit the ball hard (35%, right around league average) and makes solid contact (9%, well over the MLB average of 5.6%), but his barrel rate is bottom 20% in the league.

At the winter’s outset, Nola seemed pencilled lightly into the 1B position, but Evan White’s extension should have him up most of the year, if not immediately. With Narváez gone, Seattle seems comfortable giving Nola greater responsibility behind the dish. Tom Murphy will have a more traditional starter role than last year’s near-50/50 split, but Nola should get more than the 38.2 MLB innings (and 233.2 AAA innings) in pads he did last year. Limited reps and scouting over the past few years have his framing as passable, and he cut down 6/14 base-stealers in Tacoma (though he went 0/3 in Seattle).

Changing career paths can be scary, but Nola made the move from middle infield to catcher a few years ago, and he’s a bona fide big leaguer because of it. Looking for a 30 year old to take a step forward isn’t the safest bet in the world, but as long as the ball stays juicy and he can lengthen the bench with his versatility, Seattle should have one small piece of a competent roster here.