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Is this Anything?: Austin Nola edition

The latest member of team “[X]’s brother” makes his case

Many moons ago, there was a recurring sketch on the David Letterman show called “Is This Anything,” wherein the stage curtain would rise, revealing someone performing what might loosely be called a talent, or at the very least a party trick. Letterman and bandleader Paul Shaffer would then attempt to determine if what they just witnessed was “something” or “nothing.”

One of the small joys of having a rebuilding team is bringing in a bunch of guys and playing the baseball version of “Is This Anything” with them. As it was on the show, the answer is often “no,” but sometimes you find a diamond in the rough, a talent that is clearly a “something,” and in year two of the rebuild, we’re starting to see more of the Somethings. A cartwheeling Tom Murphy, freed from seven years of fruitless toil in the Rockies’ system, was the breakout star of last season, with his piercing gaze that he somehow channeled into monstrous home runs. Dylan Moore, whom Jake wrote up the other day, is making a case as even more than a Something after bouncing around three other organizations’ minor-league systems. And the Mariners might have another Something on their hands in Austin Nola.

Nola came to the Mariners from similarly undistinguished circumstances. Known mostly as the brother of Phillies pitcher Aaron, the older Nola seemed destined to be the Joseph Hicks/Bryan Harper/Justin Seager of the family after spending nine years toiling in the Marlins’ organization before signing with the Mariners in the 2019 off-season. After being called up from Triple-A Tacoma in mid-June, Nola went from “feel-good story of a minor-leaguer finally getting a shot at a lifelong dream” to “legitimate hitter,” as he finished the season with a .269/.342/.454 slash line with 10 home runs. Those might not be sparkling numbers for a first baseman or DH, but Nola showed something else as well—an ability to play credibly behind the dish, something he’d picked up in the Marlins system as a way to extend his career.

Last July, John wrote up something about Austin Nola’s hot start (titled, now that I look at it, in a manner remarkably similar to this piece) that gently suggested regression was coming for the elder Nola, pointing at the discrepancy between his wRC+, at the time in the 140s, and Baseball Reference’s more staid DRC+ evaluation of 104, leveling Nola out as an average hitter. John also pointed out some other underlying red flags regarding Nola’s performance, including a subpar average exit velocity (86.2 compared to an MLB average of 87.5), and also noted that Nola was outperforming his expected wOBA and BA, both of which painted him as an average hitter. By the close of the season, John’s prognostications would have mostly panned out, thanks largely in part to a BABIP of .405 leveling out at a more normal .325. Nola’s final DRC+ landed at 102, just a hair above replacement-level, and his wRC+ settled down to a respectable but not out-of-this world 114. That still made Austin Nola and his 1.4 bWAR the 8th-most valuable player on an admittedly pretty bad 2019 Mariners team, and he’d showed enough skill behind the dish that the Mariners were happy to go forward with him as the backup catcher for 2020, where his numbers would hold up even better.

So far in 2020, however, Austin Nola is off to the same hot start he was last year—but this time is doing so with some metrics that back up his performance. Nola is currently slashing .324/.395/.588, good for a wRC+ of 180, which is pretty clearly an unsustainable performance; however, the underlying metrics suggest the downward motion will be more of a drift and less of a theme park-worthy precipitous drop. Nola’s BABIP, while high, is more within the realm of possibility at .385, and that’s being lifted up by how often he’s making hard contact—over 40% of the time according to Savant, a five point improvement over last year. His average exit velocity is also up, to over 90 mph, in the top third of the league. Part of what’s helping Nola get to that power is improved plate discipline; he’s cut his strikeouts down from 24% to 18%, one of the best marks in the league, while maintaining his ability to take a walk. Pitchers are still attacking Nola low and away, as they did last season, but they’re putting the ball in the middle of the plate even less, and Nola has responded by showing more discipline. Here’s where he saw pitches in 2019:

vs. 2020:

If there’s a reason to pump the brakes on this NOLA party bus, it has to do with one of the same things John highlighted last year; so far, Nola is outperforming his expected metrics, with an xBA of .246 looking pretty dull next to his shiny .324 average—although his expected slugging mark of .408, while not the Troutian .588 he’s currently mashing, is certainly nothing to sneeze at. And while there might be some groundball luck, like on his single off Lance McCullers shot right up the middle, Nola’s smoking the ball hard enough to make even grounders tough plays—the ball he hit off McCullers had an exit velocity of 106, the highest of the game.

The luxury of a rebuilding season is being able to sit back and watch the “Is This Anything?” game play out without pressure or expectations. But even if Nola just hits his expected stat line of .246/.318/.408, and does so as a backup catcher, that’s some pretty solid production from a spot that’s a black hole in most lineups. In fact, if he could push that slugging closer to a .450 mark—not beyond the realm of possibility given his performance last year and his increased hard hit rate—that’s essentially 2019 Yasmani Grandal’s slash line. And that, from your backup catcher, is definitely something.

(Oh, and there’s one more reason I feel good about Austin Nola’s chances this season: