How Did Austin Nola Become So Danged Valuable?Craig Edwardson September 4, 2020 at 1:00 pm

San Diego’s big move at the deadline involved acquiring Mike Clevinger. Of course, they made a number of smaller moves as well, adding relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Taylor Williams, catcher Jason Castro, and designated hitter/first baseman Mitch Moreland. All of those deals made a ton of sense, but the one that jumps out, the deal that makes you wonder what exactly is going through A.J. Preller’s head, involved giving up a good prospect in Taylor Trammell, along with a few other useful players, for a package headlined by 30-year-old catcher Austin Nola and his 377 big league plate appearances. I suspect it caused many to ask, “Who is Austin Nola?” and “Why was he so valuable?”

Before we get to Nola, let’s first acknowledge that our evaluations of Taylor Trammell might be a bit off. He graded out as a 55 Future Value-level prospect when traded from the Reds a year ago, but he fell to a 50 on the Mets list this season, projecting to be an average regular. That’s a very good prospect, and one of the top 100 in the game, but he isn’t a surefire starting left fielder. As such, it’s possible Trammell’s trade value is slightly lower than the prospect consensus. Of course, we also need to mention that the Padres sent multiple other players to Seattle in power reliever Andres Muñoz, potential role player Ty France, and 24-year-old catcher Luis Torrens, whose development has been slow since joining the Padres as a Rule 5 pick before the 2017 season. And while the Padres did get two other relievers in Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla, explaining the Nola-Trammell swap as resulting from a drop in Trammell’s value doesn’t quite do enough, as even with a dip, he still provides a decent amount of value and the other players included add more to the trade. To really explain the deal, we need to explain Austin Nola, a player any team could have signed less than two years ago.

Nola was a fifth-round pick by the Marlins back in 2012 and signed for $75,000. This is what Baseball America had to say in their report:

Austin Nola has been drafted twice already, never higher than the 31st round. He was playing at a higher level as a senior, having played with younger brother Aaron, a right-hander who should be a high draft pick in 2014. The 6-foot, 188-pound shortstop plays with confidence, especially on defense, where his hands are sure and his feet surprisingly nimble considering his below-average speed. He lacks impact with his bat, though he has improved his plate discipline and contact ability slightly over the course of his career. He’s a career .296 hitter who gives consistent effort and performance while lacking upside.

Already 22 years old when he was drafted, by 2014 Nola was playing in Double-A and putting up an average hitting line. In the Arizona Fall League, he captured the attention of Carson Cistulli and on the 2015 Marlins prospect list, he merited mention by Kiley McDaniel as “a solid utility type that’s just good enough at shortstop to play there for stretches while he hits liners gap to gap.” There was little to no power in his game and after a nondescript 2016 season, the erstwhile editor of FanGraphs noted that Nola “continued in 2015 to exhibit the sort defensive value and contact skills typical of the overlooked prospect. The almost complete lack of power in both cases, however, renders [Nola] unlikely to provide much value in the majors.”

Following a 2016 campaign that saw Nola stall in Triple-A, he asked what he could do to improve his game and his hitting coach, Paul Phillips, got out the catching equipment. Nola worked on catching in the Fall League, leading Marlins assistant farm director Brett West to rave about Nola’s makeup, saying he was “by far the best player as far as makeup I’ve had a chance to work with.” In spring training, he received plaudits from Marlins’ manager Don Mattingly and president of baseball operations Michael Hill about his transition. On the Marlins’ prospect list heading into the 2017 season, Eric Longenhagen had this to say about Nola’s potential transformation:

A former utility-infield prospect, Nola is converting to catcher and his journey began in the 2016 Fall League. He didn’t play enough for scouts to have an opinion on his glove there, but Nola is a high-end makeup guy and solid athlete with a compact build, exactly the type of player scouts or player dev personnel identify for conversion if there isn’t an alternative path to the big leagues. We can only wait and see if Nola takes to catching. If he does, and can continue to make contact at a decent rate, he’ll be a backup.

Nola made the team’s 40-man roster in 2017 and worked on his game all season, but converting to catching is a slow process and he entered the 2018 season at 27 years old with a new front office in Miami after the sale of the team. He was removed from the 40-man at the start of the season, but he cleared waivers and kept working. Nola continued to improve as a catcher, but also found himself hitting better. Due to the physical demands of his new position, Nola worked on increasing strength in his legs, and also changed his approach at the plate. He drew notice in college and in the early minors for his gap-to-gap game, but New Orleans hitting coach Tommy Gregg implored Nola to pull the ball. From a New Orleans Advocate piece by Darrell Williams in May 2018:

“I convinced him to shorten his swing, and how to do it and not worry so much thinking about going the other way,” Gregg said. “We worked and talked about taking his arms out of the swing. He was really long and was always late because he was trying to use his body and arms to get long and extended.

“We talked about waiting longer to see the ball, and then trying to move quick and use his hands more. He didn’t understand that his extension is after you hit the ball, not before.”

Nola’s .279/.370/.376 slash line might not jump out as an improvement, but it was roughly average and improved as the season went along. More importantly, his groundball to fly ball ratio went from 1.5 to 1.3, and the percentage of batted balls going to the opposite field went from 38% to 23%. Nola was managing a hitting transformation many have gone through over the last decade while simultaneously attempting to become a catcher. At the end of the season, the Marlins failed to add him to the 40-man roster, and he became a minor league free agent, signing with the Mariners.

In Triple-A for Seattle at the beginning of last season, Nola didn’t pull the ball quite as much as he did in his final year in the Marlins organization, but the Mariners emphasized hitting the ball in the air; he kept at it and finally started to hit homers. He earned a promotion and played all over the field, and though his strikeout rate went up, he kept hitting. His 114 wRC+ with 10 homers in 267 plate appearances was okay for a first baseman, but with the Mariners trade of Omar Narváez to the Brewers, Nola took over catching duties after another long offseason of work. His strikeout rate has gone back down to his minor league levels this season and he’s kept the average to above-average power that started playing in games last year. The result has been a 147 wRC+ and Statcast numbers that back it up.

Even after the transformation, it might still seem a bit curious for a team to value a 30-year-old catcher so highly. While catching is incredibly difficult and can take a toll on the body, we don’t know if that toll is due to the long accumulation of catching or simply to age. The former might benefit Nola as he is relatively new to the position. The latter puts him in an unusual position regarding his contract. The White Sox just committed $73 million for Yasmani Grandal’s age-31 through age-34 seasons. For the next two seasons after this one, Nola will earn just over a $1 million in total. If he’s still producing heading into his age-33 season, he’ll enter arbitration where he’ll likely make under $5 million, with potentially two more seasons where he might never earn more than $10 million; if he declines with age, those salaries aren’t guaranteed.

Austin Nola might not fit the same profile as Max Muncy or José Bautista, but his bat doesn’t need to transform as dramatically when we factor in the position change. If Nola puts up a 120 wRC+ over a full season and is average behind the plate, he’s a four-win player. The opportunity to trade a good but not great prospect for a guy who might be a four-win player on a minimum salary simply doesn’t exist very often. Most players with Nola’s potential production are much younger, and nearly impossible to trade for, or have high salaries. Nola is unique. His production is far from a guarantee, and he might decline quickly, but he provides immediate, potentially great production at a cost normally associated with trading for a good pending free agent at the deadline. If the Nola deal felt a little weird, it’s because it was.
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