Austin Nola is back in familiar territory. This time, he has a different set of gear and a new position.
The former Louisiana State University standout and fifth-round selection of the Marlins in the 2012 draft spent all of 2016 with New Orleans. He was named a MiLB.com Organizational All-Star after hitting .261 and establishing career highs with 23 doubles and six home runs in 113 games at second base, third base and shortstop.
But before the calendar flipped to 2017, Nola had decided to take a different path in his baseball career by transitioning to catcher.
Baby Cakes manager Arnie Beyeler said that last year he sat down with Nola and former hitting coach Paul Phillips to discuss Nola's future in baseball and how he could get better as a player. The consensus within the organization was that if Nola wanted to have a better opportunity to get to the big leagues, he would have to be a super-utility player that could catch.
He attended the Arizona Fall League - a collection of some of the minor leagues' top prospects - and got his first taste of life behind the plate. Nola batted .273 in eight games, which included time at catcher and at first base, and was named the winner of the Dernell Stenson Award, given to the AFL player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership.
"It's a different side of the game, especially the pitch calling. It's been a different transition but I'm enjoying it and learning every bit I can," Nola said. "The pitching coaches are teaching me how to read swings and especially the catching guys as well; those guys who have caught in the big leagues have really helped me out."
Nola opened the 2017 campaign with Double-A Jacksonville and committed two errors in 46 starts behind the plate. He ranked fourth among Southern League backstops by throwing out 36.4% of baserunners attempting to steal, and his bat came around after a slow start. After hitting just .158 in April, Nola compiled a .281 average in May and a .315 mark in June, prompting a promotion to Triple-A.
In his second game with the Baby Cakes on July 3 in Memphis, Nola smacked a pair of doubles. His first start behind the plate at home came two days later against Omaha, and he threw out top Royals prospect Raul Mondesi attempting to steal second.
Seeing Nola for a second season, Beyeler said he is pleasantly surprised how far he has come in such a short amount of time, and attributes Nola's success to his work ethic, drive and desire.
"For a guy that's only been catching for about a year now, it's pretty amazing that he's at this level and that he is competing as well as he is," Beyeler said. "Nobody works harder than him. He's a baseball rat, and on top of that, he's a pretty talented kid."
Nola said so far he enjoys his new role, and with each game comes new things to learn and opportunities to improve.
"I try to keep a log of everything I'm learning and working with our video guy," Nola said. "We have a lot of numbers and things we can look on to help us put the puzzle together. I've got a lot of good people in my corner helping me out. All the catching guys, managers, pitching coaches have really helped me learn and grow as a catcher."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.