Now pitching in this inning of C’s Chat is 2019 Vancouver Canadians right-hander Alex Nolan.
The 23 year-old Burlington, Ontario native signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent earlier this summer. On the heels of pitching for the Brock University Badgers of the OUA (Ontario University Athletics), Nolan had been pitching for the Kalamazoo Growlers of the summer collegiate Northwoods League. He won his lone decision and recorded a 3.17 earned run average over 11-1/3 innings in which he struck out 13 batters and walked three.
A private workout at the building formerly known as SkyDome convinced the Blue Jays and assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish to sign the former Brock University Badger.
“It certainly did not come easy, that’s for dang sure. Super fortunate to even have a look or a phone call to be invited to a workout. How it came about was it kind of just started out with the mindset that I’m going to have to outwork everybody in the room and everybody in this town and everybody in the OUA to just kind of get a look or even a scroll. So that kind of where it started.
Under the tutelage of Brock coaches Marc LePage, Fabio Del Rio and Dylan Perego, Nolan’s desire to be on the diamond came to the forefront.
It really started when I went to Brock and having the mentality to be drawn there that, ‘Oh, I just play Canadian baseball, you know. I’m not in the States or that’s all I’ll ever be.’ And I was like, ‘Heck, no! That’s definitely not the attitude I ever want.’ When I graduate from Brock, I don’t want to be like if I played a couple of more innings or I went to the gym one more night, maybe this could have happened. I wanted to give it 110 percent so that if it was finished, I had my chin high and I’m like, ‘You know what, I gave it everything.’ That’s kind of where it started.
The coaching staff at Brock was there. They said, ‘Let’s get to it! Let’s figure this out!’ Just having a great environment and having the right mindset is where it started.”
The OUA is not known as a baseball hotbed but Nolan hopes he can help change that perception by being a trailblazer of sorts.
“You know, there’s a lot of guys that think the same way as me and they want to be here. Obviously, who doesn’t want to play professional baseball? But I took on the duty of ‘I want to be the guy that leaves this path kind of for someone behind me.’ So if I could even get a look and bring attention to the OUA, that was a success for me.
Just to kind of have that exposure for somebody else behind you. Like you said, ‘There’s baseball in the OUA.’ It’s like yeah, we have a ton of guys that again just choose not to go to the States. They get offers and they just choose not to leave. It doesn’t mean they’re poor baseball players or unathletic. They chose to stay home and they chose to be closer to home and go to a Canadian school and get a Canadian education.
There’s a lot of ballplayers in that league, man, that they can play. They just need the exposure, they need someone to go ‘Hey, like, this game came from there. Is there another?’ It started when I went to Fort Mac (Fort McMurray, Alberta). They gave me the opportunity from the OUA. That’s what I wanted like, ‘Oh, Alex Nolan, he’s from the OUA. Let’s give him another look.’ And then, there’s someone else down the line.’ In the OUA, it’s all about who you want to be and how much work that you’re going to put in.”
After pitching for the Fort McMurray Giants in the Western Major Baseball League in 2017—where he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of one of his starts—Nolan continued his summer collegiate career in 2018 with the Thunder Bay Border Cats of the Northwoods League. He won four of five decisions with the Border Cats and had an ERA of 2.36 ERA and that earned him league All-Star honours. His two years in the Northwoods League helped him develop as a pitcher.
“The Northwoods League is really what got me ready to a minor league schedule. It’s 73 games, 75 days and you’re on the bus every three days and in the hotels all night, staying with housing and billet families.
That was my season because in the OUA, we play 18 games. I would play my OUA season and then I was like, ‘Hey, summer’s coming.’ That’s where I have to shine. That’s where I have to really be ready because now these guys from the NCAA are coming off their season into summer ball.
Meanwhile, I’m coming off the off-season so I would be working hard everyday in the off-season trying to get ready for summer. That’s my season, that’s where like, ‘Okay, I got to show up.'”
Also on Nolan’s baseball resume is pitching for parts of three seasons with his hometown Burlington squad in the Intercounty Baseball League.
Point A to B – Arizona to Brock
Before joining the Brock Badgers, the 6-foot-4 Nolan attended Ironwood Ridge High School in Tucson, Arizona. Playing as a first baseman and pitcher, that’s where he gained initial interest from scouts.
“I grew up in Arizona. I was always getting looked at down there growing up through high school and then coming back up to Brock, I played for Team Ontario so there were always some looks through there and some ruffles but I never really kind of lit up the radar gun as much.
They started noticing body type and like what it could be but the big deal was just, ‘Does he want it bad enough?’ The Canadian schools and the Canadian mindset—a lot of guys, they don’t want to go to the States. For me, the opportunity was I wasn’t afraid to go play in these leagues in the States, I wasn’t afraid so based on that, (scouts felt) ‘Hey guys, this guy’s for real. This guy wants to do it.’
Joining Canada’s Team
Being a member of the Toronto Blue Jays organization is an honour not lost on Nolan.
“I still get super emotional about it, like now. It’s just very, it’s super super personal. Even in the complex, you want to be all ears, no mouth, right? You’re just trying to contain your excitement, like walking down the halls of Dunedin, it says ‘One Nation, One Team’ and you’re just (whispers) ‘Damn!’ (Normal voice). That’s amazing. I met Devon Travis and I’m just like, ‘Nice to meet you, man! I grew up watching you play!’
It’s super personal and I try my best to kind of not prepare but just pop in the ideas of these guys (his teammates) that like, ‘Hey, like you know, when you get there some day, it’s big. You’re representing one nation. It’s kind of like, it’s not a big deal right now to a lot of people but like, when you get there and you realize like, there’s a whole country that wants you to do well, and if you’re a guy there, like, they love you!
Look at Kawhi (Leonard), I think it’s amazing. That’s why even guys like Marcus Stroman, I think, are awesome because he gets the idea of Toronto. He gets the idea of Canada. He likes the idea that no one wants to play here. ‘Heck, yeah. I do. I want to play here, like I want to be the guy that represents.’ That’s what I like to do and I wear it on my sleeve.”
The game plan for Nolan to be successful has been laid out by the Blue Jays.
We have Andrew Tinnish, who’s the assistant general manager of the Blue Jays. He said, ‘This is what you need to work on. This is what you have a difficult time doing and you got to figure it out.’
It all started with the delivery so even currently, I’m still working on my delivery. The velocity is starting to come back a little bit but it’s more focused on spin rate and efficiency.
So I took that and I took it really to heart like everyday was I got to do this everyday, every single day. That’s kind of where it started and they kind of gave me the blueprint to wherever I get to have my success. Everyone in Brock, all my coaches, Andrew Tinnish, I’m kind of playing for them and myself, you know. I got to represent.”
Going to Vancouver
An early thrill for Nolan was the chance to begin his pro career with the Vancouver Canadians and he had a unique way of telling his parents.
“Actually, I called my Dad and I said, ‘Can you check out the weather in Vancouver for the weekend?’ He was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘I’m coming back to Canada.’ They (his parents) were extremely happy. I was extremely, extremely happy just because like I thought it was a cool place to start my career as a pro baseball player. It’s a big privilege to play in your home country and be the only Canadian.
You know, we drafted another Canadian player too from Oakville (Ontario – Dasan Brown) just down the street from me. If he ever comes here and I play with him, that would be cool too. To share that experience with someone else but again, there are so many good Canadian ballplayers. It’s kind of like it’s us versus everyone too, right? So it’s awesome.”
Another interesting call to his parents involved Nolan getting to meet former Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero—a Sportsnet analyst for the Vancouver Canadians.
“Holy cow, man! Him and Roy Halladay were always my guys. Even talking to him, I was just like trying to play it cool, like holy cow! Right after that conversation, I texted my Mom. ‘I was just talking to Ricky Romero!’ But that was surreal too.
He’s got so much knowledge. That’s another guy, like ‘all ears, no mouth’. Anything they say like even how to tie your shoes. You’re still like, ‘Hey, Ricky Romero tied his shoes like that.’ You really got to take in everything they say. He’s got just so much knowledge. Just to hear anything from him was a privilege.”
Nolan’s debut at Nat Bailey Stadium saw him allow just one run over five innings of relief against Eugene June 19. Another highlight was the opportunity to pitch at the Nat on Canada Day.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen. When I talk about pressure, I like to mention pressure is opportunity. There was a lot of opportunity to be great that day. Personally, I don’t think I showed up as well as I wanted to on that day. I take it a lot personally at home. I really, really dislike losing at home just because it’s our home’s fans and it’s kind of like I’m kind of like representing more than just myself. I really dislike losing at home but it was a great opportunity. I just thank my coaches for allowing me to pitch on that day. It was really cool.”
Things went better for Nolan in his next start at home when his five innings of one-run relief against Tri-City saw him earn his first professional victory July 14. He paid tribute to the starting pitcher for the C’s that night.
“First of all, Nick Fraze set the tone in that game. That game doesn’t go that way without him starting out there and coming out just pounding the zone, throwing off-speed for strikes. It started with him. I was just the guy to kind of piggyback off him, right? He deserves a lot of credit and he’s been dealing. Now he has a lot more confidence in his off-speed and his fastball. He’s going to be a guy.
And then again Gilly (Luke Gillingham) for him to come down, to come out of the bullpen and shut the door and execute pitches, it was unbelievable to watch. Everybody executed their job perfectly.
For me to sneak in and grab a win, I’m very humbled and very honoured but it wasn’t just me, it was everyone. We want to play to the best we can be at all times. We’re kind of playing for each other, playing for Casey (Candaele), playing for Demetre (Kokoris), playing for Butch (Aaron Matthews), playing for Casey (Collison), playing for Luke (Greene), everyone on our staff and Danny (Canellas). We want to play well for all of them.
There’s a turning point here. We’re having a little bit more fun. Winning’s fun. It was a great day. There was a lot of people in the stands too. Man, like this place gets packed. It’s so cool to play for everyone here and we like to show up for them.”
Only until recently has Nolan been starting games for the C’s. He had been piggybacking with Fraze who Nolan says they are polar opposites personality-wise.
“Nick Fraze is an interesting guy because Nick Fraze is kind of the opposite of me. He’s just a chill, mellow guy. Gets his work in, gets out, right? I kind of like trade conversation and say, ‘Hey, how’s your day doin’?’ I love coming in after him to be honest.
My routine has always been based off a starter but I like watching him and then coming in helping him out. He’s going to be a guy. Honestly, his off-speed has improved so much from day one. His confidence has improved and he’s just finding himself. He’s finding out what he does right and what he does wrong and it’s so fun to watch.”
Nolan looks to a former Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer for inspiration when employing his mix of pitches.
“In the off-season, I was working a lot on velocity and I was up to 93-94 (miles per hour). But recently with just like the change of routine, my velocity has significantly dropped so it’s kind of been disappointing from that stage.
I like to take a page out of Greg Maddux‘s book where it’s a lot of location and movement so I throw a cutter and a two-seam because my strength is a lot of movement. And then a splitter and a slurve. The slurve is more like the three-quarter angle but those pitches, I have to dominate off-speed.
Once I get my velocity back, it’ll be a little different but you need to dominate off-speed in this league and you need to pitch inside. That’s a big thing that I credit to our pitching coach Demetre. He’s kind of taught me that you got to bust in on these guys, the game is played outside. You got to throw a second pitch for a strike. That’s what I’ve been most confident in is throwing the splitty in there 0-0, 0-1, 0-2, whatever.
The opportunity to talk pitching with his teammates is something Nolan finds to be beneficial.
We all learn from each other too. All the pitchers pick each other’s brains. ‘What are you doing? How do you throw that? Why do you do this warmup? Why do you do all those crazy stretches?’ Everyone has questions and it’s a great, great organization when people are learning from each other. It’s amazing.”
Nolan is the second Brock Badger to join the Vancouver Canadians. Guelph, Ontario native and infielder Shaun Valeriote was a member of the 2013 C’s club that went on to win a third consecutive Northwest League championship.
Thanks a million to Alex Nolan for talking baseball in this instalment of C’s Chat. You can follow him on Twitter @NolNasty2point0. Thanks also to Jordy Cunningham—C’s Media Relations Assistant—for booking the interview.