This past Saturday, Tyler Austin had the first two-homer game of his young career. The following game, he found himself riding the pine while Neil Walker filled in at first base. Without context, this seems like a perplexing decision by Aaron Boone. Why reward a multi-dinger performance with a benching? Given the proper context, however, and Boone's decision makes more sense. Walker is a known commodity, and they tend to find their way into starting lineups over less reliable options.
Still, Austin does have some compelling allure. There's his former top prospect status, for one. Although a good part of that sheen was lost due to injuries, he has done his part to rebuild his stock, demolishing Triple-A pitching in both 2016 and 2017.
What's more, while Austin's strong minor league performance hasn't entirely carried over to his time in the bigs, he has shown legitimate power, recording a .248 ISO over 142 plate appearances. Austin is interesting in his own right, and he deserves an extended look in the majors during Greg Bird's absence.
Firstly, consider Austin's power. This isn't a case of some random bozo lucking into two cheapies. This is a strong guy hitting the snot out of the ball. Notice the Statcast measures on the screen, which tells us that both of Austin's dongs left his bat at speeds in excess of 112 miles per hour. Granted, both pitches were meatballs, but one of the most important qualifications of a major league hitter is the ability to punish pitchers' mistakes. Austin passed that test with flying colors — twice.
Now, Austin is strong, but he's not an exit velocity monster like Aaron Judge. Statcast also tells us that the first homer in the video above was his hardest-hit ball in the majors to date, as his 2016 and 2017 high-water marks were 112.6 MPH and 110.4 MPH, respectively. If you're wondering where that puts Austin among major league hitters, last year he was 194th in maximum exit velocity among all batters with more than 10 batted balls. Above average, sure, but not among the elite.
Where Austin shines is hitting the ball in the air with authority - or, to use a more trendy term, barreling the ball - on a consistent basis. According to Statcast, last year Tyler Austin ranked 18th in barrels per batted ball (8.7) among all MLB batters with at least 10 batted balls. The year before that, he placed 21st with an 8.9 mark. Those surrounding him in either year are almost all name-brand sluggers - Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, to name a few. Austin doesn't have the best raw power, but he has accessed it in game situations with a consistency that rivals the game's best sluggers.
The only thing that has hindered Austin from being an above-average player, injuries notwithstanding, is his sky-high strikeout rate at the MLB level. Austin is currently the owner of a 38.7% strikeout rate in the bigs. Despite this, he's run a 107 wRC+ due to his ability to consistently barrel the ball when he does make contact. That said, Austin's going to need to bring down his strikeout rate to around 30% if he ever wants to be anything more than a bench bat.
His strikeouts aren't the product of a poor approach at the plate. Austin’s walk rate isn't unforgivably low, and his yearly O-Swing, Z-Swing and overall swing rates have been right around MLB averages. The stat that jumps out of Austin's player page is his swinging strike rate, which was a whopping 18.8% in 2016 before slightly improving to 16.2% in 2017.
Austin has a hole in his swing, and it's keeping him from realizing his full potential. If a terrible swinging strike rate sounds damning for his prospects, it's because it usually is. Luckily for Austin, there's precedent for a contact-challenged slugger succeeding while still whiffing by the dozen. Chris Davis is the name I have in mind.
Like Austin, pre-breakout Davis had a swinging strike rate in the high teens, severely depressing his batting average to the point that not even his power production could salvage his overall slash line. From 2012 onwards, though, Davis managed to keep his swinging strike rate between 15 and 16 percent. That two percent improvement was all Davis needed to transform from Quad-A tease to Roger Maris challenger.
Let it be said that Davis' career path is an absolute best case scenario for Austin. In all likeliness, Austin will never approach Davis in terms of peak performance or career WAR. However, it's not like everybody thought Davis was on the verge of a breakout in 2011, either. All it took was an Orioles team willing to give him at bats and a two percent reduction in swinging strike rate. What if Austin could improve on his 2017 swinging strike rate by, say, one half of a percentage point? I'd say it's intriguing enough to warrant giving him as many at bats as possible.
Even with Bird on the disabled list, the Yankees have many options at first base, with Austin's immediate competition being Walker and recent callup Miguel Andujar. However, Walker's career numbers against southpaws suggests that he needs to be paired with a platoon partner, and it remains to be seen how well Andujar might take to switching infield corners. In this way, the Yankees' current first base situation provides Austin with a path to semi-regular playing time. They should have no qualms about giving it to him; he's deserved it.