61 plate appearances into his 2018 campaign, Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin already has more wins above replacement this season than he did for the first two seasons of his career. With Greg Bird still not expected to return until at least mid-May and the uncharacteristically substandard performance of Neil Walker, Tyler Austin has filled in admirably (and then some) at a position that the Yankees have yearned to generate sustained offensive production from for several seasons now.
From 2016-2017, Austin’s struggles were well-documented as he posted an OPS+ of just 93 during those two seasons. Despite the fact that the Conyers, Georgia native is not even arbitration eligible until 2020, there had to be a personal feeling of exigency for him to prove he belongs on the active roster. So far this year, he’s proven to be the unsung hero of a Yankees lineup that (as of now) is the most prolific in baseball.
Among first basemen with at least 60 plate appearances, Tyler Austin had produced a wRC+ of 169, behind only Paul Goldschmidt. His OPS (.988) trails only Brandon Belt, and the can be said for his wOBA (.423).
Oddly enough, his unprecedented performance (based on his individual career) leaves fans with more questions than answers. How is he doing this, and how did it happen?
For one thing, Austin is walking far more often than he did in his first two years. Secondly, he is swinging at more pitches within the strike zone. His plate discipline has been a key component in his astounding rise this season.
He’s also demonstrated that no pitcher, regardless of handedness, can outwit him. He has a .942 OPS against right-handed pitchers this year, and a 1.058 OPS against southpaws. He has hit all but one of his four home runs against righties.
If it were up to me, Tyler Austin would occupy first base for at least the foreseeable future this season. Neil Walker was signed to provide depth and stability, but the arrival of rookie Gleyber Torres has superseded Walker’s time at second base, and with only 144 career innings at the hot corner, Miguel Andujar has taken that spot, and while the former Pirates, Mets and Brewers pivot has been known for his early-season struggles, he was brought here jump-start and instruct a youthful infield.
As vociferous of a Greg Bird supporter as I have been, the reality is that he simply cannot be relied upon to stay healthy. While his return appears to be imminent, how do Yankees fans know he won’t have another major injury again and end up missing more games? Austin is 5-12 in his past three games and that included a two-run missile that sailed into the Bronx night back on Monday night.