For Tyler Austin, years of promise, disappointment, and resurgence finally came to a head in 2016 when he was promoted to the majors this summer. Things got off to a promising start when he launched a solo home run to right field in his first major league appearance, but it turned out to be the tale of two seasons—August failure and September success. Now it has left him pitched in a battle for the Yankees’ first base job.
Throughout Austin’s minor league career, no matter what ups and downs he went through, he was always known as a prospect who had a great eye at the plate. In seven minor league seasons he average a 10.3% walk rate, which was merely a bonus during his bombastic 2012 tour de force, and kept him afloat following his wrist injury. In 2016, he put everything behind him, pulled himself out of Double-A Trenton, and dominated Triple-A pitching by hitting .323/.415/.637 with 13 home runs in just 234 plate appearances.
The Yankees were left with no other choice but to give him a chance after Mark Teixeira’s knee fell apart. Unfortunately, as we know, things don’t usually work out as well as we want them to and reality set in fast. Austin struggled after his memorable debut. Thirty-six at-bats into his major league career and he looked to be nothing more than another prospect mirage. He hit .167/.189/.250 in August, striking out at an uncharacteristic 32.4%, just over 10% higher than his minor league rate. Even worse was that he could only manage to walk 2.7% of the time.
We all know that Austin was able to turn things around, hit .298/.377/.617 in the month of September, and finish with five home runs in his debut. He continued to strike out far beyond his normal rates at 45.3%, but that didn’t matter as much because he was walking 11.3% of time. Along with showing better plate discipline, he was also able to make better contact, jumping his line drive rate from 12.5% in August to 21.7% in September.
The most important change that took place for Austin between these two months was his return to patient hitting. As you can see in the graphic above, the rookie came out swinging at absolutely everything—high, middle, or low. For the season, he put up a 72.6% swing rate, which would be around the top 30 in the league if he had qualified. It’s possible he was too amped up after finally making it to the big leagues before realizing that it was probably not the best idea to move away from the strategy that got him this far. In September he held back, allowing him to take advantage and wait for his pitch.
Throughout his life as a prospect, Austin was never considered much of a power guy. In fact, it was one of the major concerns people had about his future. He had some power, but would it ever be enough for him to make it as a corner outfielder without an impressive glove to compensate? Despite all this, Austin has developed into an impressive opposite field power hitter, able to dig the ball out of the zone and launch it to right field. He showed those abilities this year with all five of his dingers going the opposite way.
This skill makes him uniquely suited for hitting at Yankee Stadium. His line drive abilities should make him an effective hitter anywhere in the league, but it’s the short right field porch in the Bronx that gives Austin the advantage. Fans like to deduct points from players for hitting cheap home runs, but I say if it works, it works. Let him flick the ball over the wall and watch him succeed, even if it’s ‘cheap.’ He might normally tap out at five homers a year, but given these hitting conditions, he could up it to double digits if he’s deployed correctly.
Because of the success he saw in the last month of the season, the Yankees are comfortable pitting him in a spring training battle against Greg Bird to be the team’s starting first baseman. We all know who the organization wants to win, and who will probably end up with the job, but that’s not important. If Austin proves that he belongs on the Opening Day roster, even as the backup first baseman, he has the tools at his disposal to be an effective bat off the bench. One with the patience to see extended playing time if necessary, and someone with enough pop to come up big in key situations.