Since he arrived in San Diego in August 2014, San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller has cycled through a number of catchers.
This year, Austin Nola took over as the major backstop. He arrived in San Diego via trades involving 24 players during a three-day period in August 2020.
The Padres acquired Nola and right-handers Dan Altavilla and Austin Adams from the Seattle Mariners in return for outfielder Taylor Trammell, infielder Ty France, catcher Luis Torrens, and right-hander Andres Munoz.
Preller also sent catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Cal Quantrill, and first baseman/outfielder Josh Naylor to the Cleveland Guardians for pitcher Mike Clevinger and outfielder Greg Allen (as well as a player to be named later). Minor leaguers Owen Miller (outfielder), Gabriel Arias (shortstop), and Joe Cantillo (a pitcher) also went to the Guardians.
Nola spent 11 years in the minor leagues until he finally made it to the big leagues. In Seattle, he played a variety of positions, including first, second, and third base. Before he arrived in San Diego, he’d caught just seven games the Pacific Northwest.
In his first full year with the Padres, Nola played behind the dish in 46 games. However, this year he’s more than doubled the games at catcher to 101 games, a dramatic increase. Although Hedges excels at defense, Preller and the Padres have long been searching for a backstop who can also handle a bat.
The season Preller took over, Rene Rivera (103 games) and Yasmani Grandal (128) had shared catching duties. In the offseason, he traded Grandal to Dodgers for Matt Kemp (and $107 million for four years). Rivera had been the opening-day catcher in 2014 and had become Andrew Cashner’s personal partner. Rivera, Jake Bauers, and Burch Smith went to the Tampa Bay Rays for Wil Myers, Jose Castillo, and Ryan Hanigan.
According to FanGraphs Advanced Fielding in DRS (defensive runs saved), only Hedges (20), Rivera (15), and Norris (14) have performed above average in defensive metrics during Preller’s tenure. Christian Bethancourt, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, Austin Allen (who played in five games for the Oakland A’s this year), and Rocky Gale and Webster Rivas (who are out of baseball) received a neutral rating.
The rest of the group, including Nola, scored negative results:
Yasmani Grandal -2
Nick Hundley -2
Austin Nola -4
Jorge Alfaro -4
Luis Torrens -8
A.J. Ellis -11
Padres catchers this year did not fare well defensively, according to Baseball Prospectus CDA (catcher defense adjustment). Jose Trevino of the New York Yankees ranks first at 20.5, with Campusano is listed at 68 with -0.2 on defense, Alfaro 90 -1.7, Nola 102 -7.4.
Nola’s inexperience at catcher undoubtedly affects his overall defense. He’s learning on the job but has the advantage of relatively few innings squatting behind the dish.
More importantly, he has proven to work well with Padres pitchers, especially Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. In fact, he’s caught every game Darvish has pitched, which can’t be an easy task considering his variety of pitch types which number approximately 11.
Musgrove praises Nola for “knowing what I’m like when I’m frustrated when I’m nervous, when I’m overly confident. I think him being able to just kind of decipher what mood I’m in or what mindset I’m in and be able to tap into that was more helpful (than anything) in the moment.”
This year Nola led the catching corps in the number of games (110) while batting .251/.331/.329/.649 OPS+ 91. In 82 games, Alfaro batted .246/.285/383/667 OPS+ 94. Campusano, who played in just 16 games, batted .250/.260/.333/.568 OPS+ 73.
Nola’s offense definitely helped the Padres win the National League Wild Card against the New York Mets (444/500/556/1.056) and the National League Division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers (.333/.400/.417/.817). However, like the rest of the team, he struggled in the loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship series batting .053/.053/.053/.105
The Padres roster lists Nola and Campusano, as well as Brett Sullivan, as the current catchers. Sullivan (who can also play left field and shortstop) has yet to appear in a Major League game. This year he played 113 games in AAA El Paso and batted .285/.339/.444/.783.
Although he doesn’t compare defensively with Hedges, Rivera, or Norris, Austin Nola did help guide the Padres pitchers through the season and into the playoffs. He’s new to the catching position and has improved his defense over the season.
A.J Preller and the Padres have traded a number of talented players in their lengthy search for just the right starting catcher. Has the team finally found their man after seven years of searching?