What Do the Mariners Have in Austin Nola?

Can the Mariners' biggest surprise of the 2019 season repeat in a shortened campaign?

One of the lone bright spots in the second half of the Seattle Mariners 2019 season, 29-year-old Austin Nola, came out of nowhere and proved to be one of Seattle’s most consistent bats throughout the season. In 79 games, Nola hit .269/.342/.454 with 10 home runs and 23 walks.

Nola also provided some much needed positional flexibility for Seattle, logging 59 games at first base, 15 at second base, 7 at catcher, 4 at third base, and one game each in left and right field. It was an impressive debut for the then 29-year-old rookie and the Mariners agreed. Nola’s performance was enough to convince the Mariners to trade Omar Narvaez to the Milwaukee Brewers in the winter and hand Nola the backup catcher position to another 2019 breakout player, Tom Murphy.

The question before us now is whether or not Nola’s 2019 is repeatable and if so, is he in the plans for the Mariners rebuild? Or can he be? Let’s dive into the numbers.

On the surface, Nola’s .269/.342/.454 slash line looks quite good and when you compare it to the MLB average slash line of .252/.323/.435, we see Nola was roughly 20 points better in all 3 categories than the average big leaguer.

But Nola’s batted ball data tells a different story. Nola produced just a 3.4% barrel percentage, nearly 3% lower than the MLB average. He generated only 6 barrels on 177 batted balls. A barrel is defined as any ball hit 98 MPH or harder with a launch angle of at least 26 degrees. Hitting the ball hard and in the air is the key to creating damage at the plate.

Nola’s average exit velocity shows that when he does hit the ball, he hits it roughly as hard as the average player, so why is his barrel percentage so low? Nola’s launch angle is actually above the MLB average, leading to more flyballs and popups. 

By simply looking at the barrel %, it would be easy to predict Nola will fall back to earth in 2020, a point that is further backed up by his “x” stats or expected average.

As you can see, Nola’s 2019 production far outpaced his expected stats based on batted ball data. Why is that?

There are some things Nola does well at the plate that should help him consistently beat his x-stats. He will not suffer from extreme shifts, as the location of his batted balls shows a great ability to use the whole field. He also swings and misses less than the average big leaguer and chases fewer pitches out of the zone.

Nola’s plate discipline, ability to put the ball in play consistently, and willingness to use the whole field indicate that his bat should be at least league average. These skills at the plate combined with his versatility and his average defense at catcher, first base, and second base, give Nola good shot to be a useful contributor even if he falls short of his 2019 production. 

With Tom Murphy set to be the everyday catcher for 2020 and top prospect Cal Raleigh not far behind, Nola will need to produce to find his way onto the big league roster beyond 2020. But Nola’s skillset is unique enough that I believe the Mariners would be wise to plan on using Nola as the 25th or 26th man on their roster through at least the 2021 season.

But what do you think? Have the Mariners struck gold with Austin Nola? Will he play his way into the long-term plans of the Seattle Mariners? Or is he just a stop-gap for the organization? Leave your thoughts in the comment section down below and be sure to subscribe to the channel for more breakdowns.

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