Before the 2017 baseball season began, Austin Nola switched from shortstop, his position all of his athletic life, to catcher to give him a better chance to get to Major League Baseball's Miami Marlins.
“It was my choice,” said Nola, a standout as a freshman on LSU's 2009 World Series championship team. “I wanted to make the move. So every time I have tough times, I have to remind myself I made this decision.”
Tough times, it was. Nola, a four-time All-State shortstop at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, struggled behind the plate and at it. He looked like someone catching for the first time. More concerned with learning the new position, he also batted just .202 in 29 games after being called up from Double-A Jacksonville.
“The main concern was his receiving,” said Baby Cakes coach Robert Rodriguez, who primarily works with catchers. “It was receiving every single day. But when he got called up from Jacksonville, a lot of his blocking (pitches in the dirt) also needed work.”
Nola went to work. He made strides last season, but dedicated himself to having a better one at his new craft. This season, he has shown marked improvement receiving, or basically catching the ball, effectively and consistently, as well as blocking bad pitches.
His throws to second base to catch would-be base-stealers leap out at observers. On Thursday against the Round Rock Express, he pegged one to the inside corner of second base right on the bag that got out speedy center fielder Jose Cardona for the third out of the inning.
“It's been like night and day compared to last season,” Rodriguez said. “He's athletic as a catcher, and he's ready to work as soon as he hits the clubhouse every day, and that makes it easy to work with him. It's fun to watch it translate to the field.”
Young Baby Cakes pitchers have credited Nola with calling a good game after impressive performances by them. Ben Meyer, who was Pacific Coast League pitcher of the week for April 30-May 6, quickly mentioned Nola when it was announced he was selected for the award. Nola, he said, has been building a relationship with the pitchers and knows their stuff.
“He's caught me every start but one, and we've really been on the same page as far as pitch counting goes, approaching each hitter,” Meyer said. “He's good at maintaining a good sequence of pitches.”
Rodriguez, who like Nola was switched from middle infield to catcher, said the only way to become a good pitch-caller is through a lot of study.
Said Nola: “I watch a lot of tape on (opposing) hitters, and I do bullpen sessions with the pitchers, and we talk in the clubhouse.”
Rodriguez said gaining a pitcher's confidence on pitch selection involves being familiar with up to 13 opposing hitters for each series, knowing their “cold and hot spots.”
Nola, the older brother of Philadelphia Phillies and former LSU ace right-hander Aaron Nola, said he enjoys getting better at the mental part of the game. That is something that intrigued him concerning becoming a catcher.
His receiving ability is vastly improved. However, he has improved at the plate, also, and the combination of both seems to have saved his career, even if not with the Marlins.
A career .243 minor league hitter, his best season was a .280 average in 2015, his first with New Orleans. Nola, a notorious gap hitter with LSU who was a double waiting to happen, has batted .304 in 16 games while platooning with Chad Wallach. He entered Saturday on a five-game hitting streak in which he has gone 7-for-20 (.350) with three doubles, a homer and five RBIs.
Hitting coach Tommy Gregg said Nola, who was hitting to right field almost exclusively, needed to take a loop out of the back of his swing.
“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.”
There seems to be more “pop” in his hits. Part of that is confidence, Gregg said. However, Nola, who always has been dedicated to lifting weights, seems stronger, particularly in the legs. That, he said, was needed to become a better catcher.
“I did a lot of squats, more running,” he said. “Catching wears you out. The way to become a better catcher and a better hitter is to stay fresh.”
As promising a start as he's had, it appeared he might not be with the Baby Cakes. With the new Derek Jeter regime having taken over the Marlins, Nola was designated for assignment. For a week, he was in limbo, waiting to clear waivers. After his struggles last season, he didn't know if he'd be released.
“It was out of my control,” he said. “But I just continued to work out. I've been enjoying this season. I'm enjoying learning and always trying to get better each and every day.”