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The Yankees have first base covered

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Tyler Austin and Neil Walker stand among the league leaders in runs produced by first basemen, while playing solid defense in place of the injured Greg Bird.

Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin connected for a pair of two-run homers against the Royals in Kansas City on Sunday. The blasts gave him eight home runs and 23 RBIs on the year, which leads all AL rookies.
Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin connected for a pair of two-run homers against the Royals in Kansas City on Sunday. The blasts gave him eight home runs and 23 RBIs on the year, which leads all AL rookies.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bird was supposed to be the Yankees starting first baseman this year, but he got injured again toward the end of spring training. The club had already parted ways with Plans B and C, trading Chase Headley to San Diego and allowing free agent Todd Frazier to sign with the Mets in cost-cutting moves. That left 26-year-old prospect Tyler Austin and newly-signed veteran Neil Walker to man first base, with Bird expected to miss up to two months recovering from surgery on his ankle.

Austin made a big splash during his major-league debut back in August of 2016. Along with Aaron Judge, the pair became the first players in baseball history to hit back-to-back home runs in their first MLB plate appearances. Like Bird, Austin endured injuries, and consequently entered the 2018 season with his rookie status intact.

The 32-year-old Walker compiled 1,008 games at second base heading into this season, while appearing in 20 at third and only 17 at first. Still, he had a reputation as a solid defender, and the Yankees needed the depth as they planned to go with unproven rookies at the keystone and hot corner and the injury-prone Bird at first. The switch-hitting Walker carried a .778 OPS into 2018, and had averaged 16 home runs per year over the previous eight seasons.

The Yankees couldn’t have wished for better play from Walker and Austin thus far. The pair have combined to make only two errors at first base, the fewest among the Yankees infield positions. It’s not just the plays that are scored as errors, either. We’ve seen plenty of miscues by Yankees fielders this season that were scored as hits, even though the out should have been made. I can’t think of one of those occurring at first base. Austin and Walker have made all the scoops and all the plays. They’ve been flat out superb manning the position.

Nearly perfect defense is great, but first base is a premium offensive position. Walker and Austin have delivered there as well. The Yankees are among the league leaders in runs produced (R + RBI - HR) by first basemen:

AL first base offensive production: 2018

TEAM G RP RC AB R H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
TEAM G RP RC AB R H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
BOS 47 57 36.5 188 26 57 9 40 .303 .367 .521 .888
DET 47 57 34.8 179 28 56 6 35 .313 .392 .508 .901
TOR 47 54 33.0 176 26 46 8 36 .261 .371 .466 .837
NYY 45 50 23.2 172 26 41 8 32 .238 .300 .424 .724
CHW 44 42 34.3 171 24 51 10 28 .298 .376 .538 .914
TEX 49 40 20.3 182 22 34 11 29 .187 .264 .412 .676
SEA 46 39 21.7 164 26 39 10 23 .238 .302 .470 .771
MIN 43 38 22.9 159 21 41 2 19 .258 .379 .352 .731
CLE 45 36 19.5 175 19 38 10 27 .217 .285 .411 .696
KCR 47 36 22.9 177 20 45 7 23 .254 .323 .424 .747
OAK 47 34 27.0 176 23 44 8 19 .250 .333 .438 .771
LAA 47 34 23.2 182 18 49 6 22 .269 .313 .418 .730
HOU 48 33 18.7 186 17 46 2 18 .247 .304 .344 .648
TBR 45 29 21.7 172 16 43 5 18 .250 .321 .378 .699
BAL 47 23 14.7 180 13 32 6 16 .178 .260 .306 .566
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, table by Brett Borzelli

New York’s first-base duo has produced only seven fewer runs than their counterparts on the league-leading Red Sox and Tigers, despite enjoying fewer plate appearances. The Bomber’s offensive production from first base is also miles ahead of where it was at this point last season:

Yankees first base offensive production: 2017 vs. 2018

TEAM G RP AB R H RBI HR XBH BA OBP SLG OPS
TEAM G RP AB R H RBI HR XBH BA OBP SLG OPS
2018 45 50 172 26 41 32 8 16 .238 .300 .424 .724
2017 45 28 166 21 27 12 5 11 .163 .280 .295 .575
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, table by Brett Borzelli

First base continued to be a black hole in the Yankees lineup throughout the 2017 season. The team finished 26th in MLB for both runs produced and runs created (RC) by first basemen. Hopefully, the success of Austin and Walker so far this year augurs well for the club moving forward.

On Sunday, Austin had his second multi-homer game of the 2018 campaign, swatting a pair of two-run bombs against the Royals in Kansas City. The blasts gave him eight home runs and 23 RBIs on the year, which leads all AL rookies. Moreover, he’s accomplished this in only 97 at-bats.

Austin’s power looks legit, too. According to Statcast, his first longball during Sunday’s win traveled 440 feet with an exit velocity of 111 MPH. With that shot, Austin has now homered five times this season with an exit velocity of 110 MPH or higher, tying him with teammates Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton for the third most such home runs in MLB.

Understandably, Walker got off to a cool start at the plate this year after missing most of spring training. He’s been hot of late, though. Since May 1st, Walker has slashed .333/.487/.433 with five RBIs and nine runs scored over 39 plate appearances while platooning at first base.

Walker mashed last night as well, during his first start for the Yankees at the hot corner. He doubled home New York’s first run of the game in the second inning, then scored on Gleyber’s two-run blast. Walker added a solo shot in the fourth, his first home run as a Yankee.

During the club’s recent eight-game winning streak, it seemed that Walker was in the middle of nearly every late-inning rally. He got one big hit after another, scoring and driving in critical runs that helped fuel New York’s numerous comeback victories.

Depth is a great thing to have, until you’re forced to use it. So the old baseball cliche goes. The Yankees have legitimate depth at first base, and it’s been a critical component of the team’s success this season.

Greg Bird has begun minor-league rehab games and will possibly return to the big-league roster within the next week. We don’t know how well he will perform, or how long he will stay healthy. We do know that the Yankees have first base covered. They possess a valuable asset in the versatile Walker, and they may very well have another rising star in Austin.