Infielder Jake Noll is battling for a spot on the Nationals’ 25-man roster. But even if he doesn’t begin the season with the big club, he certainly has demonstrated in spring training that he can hit at this level and does a nice job of fielding any position they put him at on the field.
He starts at first base today as spring training wraps up. Noll says he works at every infield spot in pregame drills and can also play in the outfield.
“When I first got drafted, I didn’t know where I was going to play and I actually started at second base,” Noll said. “So I was second baseman for two years with the Nationals, but I did play outfield growing up and stuff mostly. Most days, I go pretty much every position, but on those days that I’m starting somewhere, I take extra (ground balls) at that place.”
Noll, 25, has slashed .326/.408/.558 with four doubles, two homers and nine RBIs in 24 big league spring training games. Last season, he got into one big league spring training game. So he has impressed the coaching staff at the plate. Noll told me he hasn’t altered his swing or approach to get these numbers.
“I’m working on something every day. I wouldn’t say I really changed anything,” Noll said. “It’s just more repeat the swing. Take the same swing every time and obviously swing at strikes. That’s a big thing, too. I wouldn’t say I really changed anything, just every day I make a little adjustment or something, but nothing big.”
With this increased playing time, Noll has had the opportunity to face top major league pitchers this spring.
“It’s definitely fun facing these guys with big names,” Noll said. “That’s the best part. They still got to throw it over the plate. At the end of the day they have to. Nothing really changes for me.”
Noll sees a big difference in extending at-bats in the majors from what he has seen at the minor league levels.
“The deeper in the count you get against these guys, they have more stuff to put you away with. So just being able to hit your pitch when you get it is the biggest thing,” Noll said. “You might get one pitch to hit per at-bat against these guys, and in the minor leagues, you miss a few (and) you are still going to get one later in the at-bat if they mess up and they throw something over the plate that you can hit. But these guys don’t make many mistakes.”
Noll hit .291 with high Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg last season, combining for 11 homers and 72 RBIs in 132 games. He credits his minor league coaches with helping him with his approach each at-bat.
“Our minor league hitting coordinator (Troy Gingrich) has helped me out a lot with approach, swing path,” Noll said. “We talk a lot about hitting and little adjustments I have to make here and there, just day to day things. But he has helped me out a lot.”
A lot of pitchers go back and look at their match-ups to see how they looked after their appearance is over. Hitters can notice little things they need to change in timing by watching postgame video. But Noll says he prefers not to look at his swing. He likes to get his swings in the cage with repetition to keep in rhythm.
“I don’t really like to look at video,” the former Florida Gulf Coast star said. “I’ve never had the prettiest swing, so when I look at video I’m kind of like, ‘Eh!’ It doesn’t look great, but it works, you know? For me, it’s about feel. Feeling my barrel in the zone as long as possible and being short to the ball. That’s what I try to do every day.”
But one other advantage Noll has is his ability to play first base, second base and third base. He can also play outfield if called upon. That’s how he’s gotten attention as a utility candidate.
“Yes, definitely a key. I got to go out and play everywhere,” Noll said. “If I can play every position, it gives me a better chance to make it to the top and also helps out the team, being an option to play wherever. They say, ‘Hey, you’re going to play here today.’ Ok, cool. It’s worked out so far.”
Noll says it is not easy to switch from spot to spot. Pregame and in-game reps have been critical for him. Getting reps with the shortstop, third baseman and today, the second baseman, helps with how comfortable he feels at that spot.
“It’s a lot of work to learn the positions. Just the little things,” Noll said. “Stuff that doesn’t come up all the time like cuts and all that stuff. Where do I go when the ball is hit to the gap? Where do I go ball hit down the line? Where am I supposed to go to be the cut? That’s the only hard part for me, but I just have to go over it in my head before the situation happens. Then it just makes everything easier.
“You just go to be on your toes. But I’ve played baseball so long, I just basically know pretty much about every position. But being able to be comfortable at every position is another thing, working at every position and learning all the ins and outs. I like it. I like being able to play wherever.”
Noll is closer to reaching his goal of playing for the Nats in the regular season. Because he has a good eye at the plate and can hold his own at any spot on the field, his right-handed bat offers a huge plus for the club as the Nationals embark on the 2019 campaign. He has shown with this spring training that he belongs.