With two months remaining in the 2019 regular season, there have been 412 different hitters to step up to the plate at least 80 times. The best hitter of those 412 has been Astros rookie sensation, who has hit to a level equalling 86 percent above league-average in his 160 plate appearances.
Following him are three hitters that have been performing at a high level all season, three hitters that are the usual suspects at the top of any hitting leaderboard: Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Christian Yelich. Occupying the fifth rank, right behind Yelich, with a 175 wRC+ is Mariners utility-player Austin Nola.
The last name Nola may immediately put a question in your head and the answer to that is yes. Austin Nola is the older brother of Phillies ace and the second runner-up to last year’s NL Cy Young, Aaron Nola. Both of them played their college ball at SEC-powerhouse LSU, overlapping their playing time for one season in 2012.
Aaron, a freshman, was on his way to becoming a frontline starter and future first round draft pick, while Austin, a senior, was a light-hitting shortstop, on his way to become a fifth round pick by the Marlins later that year.
Since turning over to professional baseball, Austin Nola role has morphed into a super-utility one, as he soon took on other infield positions, and eventually taught himself to be a catcher in 2017.
But for most of his professional career, the chances at a career in the major leagues looked bleak for Nola. In 50 games at the Low-A level, he slashed .217/.313/.291, hitting only one home run. At the High-A level, he played in 124 games, only putting up a .639 OPS only hitting one home run. In Double-A, his OPS was .658 in 256 game, with only four home runs. His numbers looked like that of organizational depth.
After seven seasons in the Marlins organization, Nola became a free agent last offseason, perhaps staring his final chance with affiliated baseball in the eyes. It took him a couple months, but he finally inked a deal, signing a minor league contract with the Mariners weeks before Spring Training. But judging by his minor league numbers and acknowledging the fact that he had only hit seven home runs in seven minor league seasons, the odds of him playing a significant role for the Mariners seemed astronomical.
The Mariners eventually assigned Nola to Triple-A, likely just asking him to full up some playing time with his versatility, but then a surprising development rose up. A month into the season, Nola was slashing .382/.468/.706. He had hit four home runs that month in 68 plate appearances, more than half his minor league career total before the season.
The original conclusion to this offensive outburst might seem logical. He’s now playing with the MLB-ball in a Triple-A run environment. He wouldn’t be the only hitter to see an up-spike in numbers. But for Nola, that might not even be the biggest factor to his equation of success.
Looking at Nola’s batted ball numbers before the 2019 season, it would be easy to see why he couldn’t find offensive success. During his time in the minors, he ranked in the top fifth of qualified hitters in ground ball-rate. Also, due to a lack of pull-power, his HR/FB-rate in the bottom eighth. None of this was a good recipe for finding hits, as his BABIP also rankd in the bottom fifth.
From 2012 to 2018, 87 minor league players had at least 3,000 plate appearances. Only three of them hit less home runs per ball in play than Nola.
Minor League HR/CON from 2012 to 2018
Nola’s numbers for the 2019 season put him at 4.38 percent of balls in play going over the fence. That rate would have put him in the top 15 of the aforementioned group. The culprit looks to be a cut down on the ground balls. In the minors this season, he put up a career-low 42.0 percent ground ball-rate. So far in the majors, his ground-ball rate is an even lower 33.3 percent, ranking in the bottom seven percent of baseball.
Hitting the ball on the ground less has created a batted ball profile that is ideal to Austin Nola’s strengths. The results? An offensive explosion. If he can even maintain this to some degree, he’ll have plenty of use on a major league roster, whether it be finding a spot in the lineup or filling an important role on the bench.