Being versatile earned Austin Nola, at 25 years old, his first promotion to Triple-A New Orleans in 2015.
That was the fourth season of his professional baseball career. The next season, Nola started to question if he would ever break through to the majors.
“I was in Triple-A in 2016,” Nola said. “It was like my second full year in Triple-A with the Marlins. We had a hitting coach named Paul Phillips, who was a catcher in the big leagues for a while, and played for a long time in professional baseball.
“We were sitting on the bench talking. I wasn’t playing that day, and I asked him, ‘What’s it going to take? What can I do better to get to the big leagues?’ ”
Phillips told Nola being a utility infielder likely wouldn’t create the path to a major-league job. He then gave Nola a possible alternative — “Have you ever thought about catching?”
Nola had never caught a game in his life — in little league, high school, college, anywhere in the minors. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea even when his younger brother Aaron, now a pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies, would ask him to put on the gear to catch him.
Phillips told Nola to consider it.
“I went home, I thought about it, and thought maybe I should try it,” Nola said. “I went back the next day and said, ‘I’d like to try it.’
“He would take me in the cage before games. We’d get there a little earlier, and just take some balls off the machine, receive a little bit, just to teach me the fundamentals of it. I kind of started to like it.”
A few years removed from learning the position, Nola, now 29, is a regular catcher for Triple-A Tacoma. He was acquired as a free agent by Seattle’s organization during the offseason.
Entering Wednesday night’s Rainiers game, Nola has caught 15 games, also appearing in eight games at first base, and two at third, and had yet to commit an error.
“He can play all over the field,” Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said recently about the former LSU shortstop who was a fifth-round draft pick in 2012. “A high-end college middle infielder, he’s just another guy who is creating a lot of versatility for himself, and is giving himself more opportunities to find a way to the big leagues.”
Playing catcher helps Nola’s resume. But, learning arguably baseball’s toughest defensive position provided plenty of challenges.
“It was humbling. It really was,” Nola said. “There were times my first year when I really questioned whether this was the right move.”
Nola played in the Fall League in 2016, joining Phillips who was coaching there/ He said the first game he appeared behind the plate was the hardest nine innings of his career.
Midway through the game, Nola asked Phillips if he could be subbed out. Nola remembers missing several balls in the dirt, and being hit with catcher’s interference during the first at-bat of the game.
“I was torn up,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to catch anymore. I didn’t want to show up the next day.”
But, he did, and his performances continually improved.
“I feel in a better position because of the growth and the tough times,” he said.
Blocking was the toughest to learn, Nola said, because of his background as an infielder. Learning to call the games wasn’t easy either, he said, but he adapted quickly by learning from his own mistakes.
“They wanted me to fail on pitch calling early to learn,” Nola said. “If I just kept looking in the dugout for assurance, I would never learn.
“That was one thing (Phillips) helped me with a lot was, ‘No, you need to learn this. You need to put the preparation in, and then you need to fail in the game in order to learn, to get better at that part of the game.’ ”
Nola said his brother has also been helpful in his development, teaching him about how different pitchers approach the game.
“He teaches me a lot about the tendencies, pitchers and what they like to do,” Nola said. “And, what he sees with hitters from a pitcher’s vision — what he sees compared to what I’m seeing — and shows me that.
“Sometimes there are some unorthodox things he does that I’m like, ‘That could work on some of the guys I catch.’ That’s been a big help.”
Nola split the 2017 season between Double-A Jacksonville and New Orleans, starting in 75 games behind the plate, and catching 629-plus innings. He committed just three errors in his first season at the position, and caught 27 runners stealing.
“I was thankful the Marlins gave me the opportunity to learn that, and take that route, because it’s a long route, it’s a tough route to learn how to catch,” Nola said.
Rainiers manager Daren Brown said Nola is a valuable player for Tacoma, and thinks he could be a valuable player in the big leagues, because of his versatility and ability to play catcher — which many utility players don’t have significant experience with.
“He’s a really knowledgeable guy and wants to be the best at it,” Brown said. “Those are some things you really can’t measure.
“He’s done a really nice job behind the plate, but again, he’s done a nice job wherever we’ve put him.”
Nola is also having his most productive season at the plate. He leads the Rainiers in most offensive categories among players who have appeared in more than six games.
He has a .364/.441/.614 slash line with a 1.055 OPS, and has hit 10 doubles and four homers while driving in a team-leading 21 runs.
“I’m just trying to have better pitch selection, and refine my approach more, and be more disciplined at the plate,” Nola said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Brown praised Nola’s consistency — as a batter, as a catcher, and anywhere else Tacoma has played him. While there is plenty of value in Nola’s bat, and his defensive versatility, he said he favors playing catcher now.
“I see myself as a catcher,” Nola said. “I want to become a catcher. I love the position a lot. I’ve really enjoyed learning the pitchers.
“I like being in the game, and I like being in that part of the game. I like calling pitches, I like framing, I like doing all of the stuff. You’re in every pitch.”