At the August 31 trade deadline last year, San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller acquired catcher Austin Nola as well as pitchers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla for outfielders Taylor Trammell and Ty France, catcher Luis Torrens, and pitcher Andres Munoz in a trade with the Seattle Mariners.
At 30 years of age, Nola found himself with a new team and facing a huge challenge in the middle of a pennant race during a pandemic. A late bloomer, Nola had spent most of his career in the minor leagues. The starting shortstop for Louisiana State University, Nola has also played left, right, first, second, and third, as well as behind the plate.
But Nola, a career minor leaguer until last year, didn’t switch to catcher until the age of 27. His goal all along had been to make it to the big leagues as a shortstop. At first, he found the responsibilities of a catcher overwhelming. He had to learn to know each pitcher’s predilections, call pitches, stop the running game — and squat behind the plate.
Nola tried out the catcher position in the Miami Marlins organization with the New Orleans Baby Cakes in April 2018. The following year, he signed as a minor league free agent with the Mariners.
Although Preller had high hopes for catcher Francisco Mejia, whom he had acquired from the Cleveland Indians in 2018, he also moved him at the end of 2020. After arriving in San Diego, Nola became the go-to guy behind the plate.
With a new team in a new town, working with unfamiliar pitchers, Nola settled in and ended up catching five shutouts. In Game 3 of the National League Wild Card series, he led nine pitchers to a 4-0 shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Nola’s 2.50 pitcher ERA ranks lowest of the five catchers used by the Padres last year. He also ranked in the 90th percentile in framing, fifth in the NL in caught stealing (six), and total zone runs (two).
In the postseason, in 23 plate appearances, Nola batted .118/.261/.118 in two series. However, overall last year, in 161 chances in the regular season, he batted .273/.353/.825 with OPS+ of 129. In 79 games with the Mariners in 2019, he batted .269/.342/.796 and hit 10 home runs.
Thanks to the pandemic-shortened season, these stats represent a tiny sample size. However, for a 30-year-old career minor leaguer to move to a new team, take over behind the plate and perform as well as Nola did last year shows obvious promise.
All those years in the minors undoubtedly whetted Nola’s appetite. He never gave up on the game, even though the game seemed to have given up on him. Nola has demonstrated that unmeasurable and intangible high baseball IQ developed through years in the bus leagues.
This year, Nola will be 31 when the season starts. His knees may be youngish for a catcher, but at 31, he’s on the wrong side of the curve — at least on paper.
Also, the Padres gave up a lot for him, especially in Trammell. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him at No. 35 overall in 2016, and he excels at baserunning.
Although Nola may start the 2021 season with a leg up thanks to last year’s performance, he will have to compete with promising 22-year-old Luis Campusano as well as Victor Caratini, who will serve as Yu Darvish’s personal catcher.
Although he’s versatile and could conceivably play first and third, he has competition with Brian O’Grady and Jake Cronenworth, who can also play multiple positions. In fact, Preller has created a roster that may rival the Los Angeles Dodgers in versatility, which could affect Nola’s playing time.
It’s also worth repeating that Nola’s achievements last year represent a small sample and cannot be counted on to predict this year’s performance.
For almost eight years, Austin Nola followed his dream of being a Major League Baseball player. He rode the buses, played before sparse crowds, and — albeit grudgingly — gave up his quest to play shortstop. He’s demonstrated the drive and determination necessary to get to the top and stay at the top. Somehow, he managed to connect with a brand new pitching staff and guide them through a playoff run.
Physically, the catcher position takes a toll on the body, especially the knees. However, Nola has played relatively few games at the position and hasn’t spent years squatting behind the plate.
Nola will have competition in Campusano and Caritini. Although known as Darvish’s catcher of choice, Caratini played in 95 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2019. Overall in four seasons, Caratini has batted .250/.327/.372/.699.
Picked at 39th overall, the 22-year-old Campusano may be the catcher in waiting. However, he remains in limbo at present. He picked the wrong state, Georgia, to get caught with 79 grams of marijuana where that amount counts as a felony with a possible jail term of up to a year. Also, Campusano has only three at-bats in the big leagues so far and remains a promising prospect but no sure thing.
Although Austin Nola may just be a place holder in Preller’s ultimate plan, he will most likely take his place behind the plate for Game 1 of the 2021 season.