By Felipe Zwanzger
After a 2012 minor league season in which he slashed .322/.400/.559 with a 10.8 BB% and
20.8 K%, there was a widespread belief that Tyler Austin would form part of the Yankees
then future outfield. Injuries halted his rapid ascent through the minors until his (second) breakout season in 2016 at the AA/AAA level with the Yankees. Absent in the analysis of his impressive minor league statistics, however, was a hitter who struggled to hit off-speed pitches; this weakness was only further exploited as he faced better pitching in the higher levels of the minors. With young pitchers in the lower levels of the minors relying more frequently on overpowering hitters with their fastballs as they develop and master their offspeed pitches, Austin was at an advantage, as his exposure to off-speed pitches was limited. As such, his minor league numbers may have been overstating the true offensive potential of Austin at the Major League level.
His 2016 debut with the Yankees reinforced this claim. Despite his slightly above average
wRC+ of 101, he struck out in 40% of his 90 plate appearances as a rookie. While this 90
PA sample size is quite small, Austin’s strikeout rates have consistently hovered north of
30% in his time in the Majors. Nonetheless, Austin was able to offset his 37.4 SO% across
three organizations in 2019 with a 13.4% walk rate, the highest mark of his career. Making this feat that much more impressive is the fact that he played for three different organizations in 2019 (Twins, Giants, and Brewers). His largest sample size of plate appearances in 2019 came with the Giants (147 PA) where his 11.6 BB% over this time span was the first time in his Major League career that he walked at a rate above 10%.
Pitchers, however, have taken notice of his inability to hit off-speed pitches: he saw less
than 50% fastballs in 2019 for the first time in his career. Furthermore, his relatively
impressive 17-game (27 PA) audition with the Brewers at the end of the 2019 season can
be misleading not only as a result of the relatively small sample size but also because of
the fact that he saw 54.7% fastballs, the most he had seen since the 2017 season with the
Yankees. While his batting average consistently hovered around the .200 mark for the
season, a 22% rate with the Brewers during the month of September paints a more
optimistic picture for his long-term prospects. This improved walk rate is further backed
by a career-low 24.2 O-Swing%, showing improvements in both selectivity and eye at the
plate. In addition, his 40.2 Swing% with the Brewers (47.0% career) speaks for a player
that is reworking his approach to become more selective at the plate and not simply swing at every fastball he sees.
Despite these small trends in the right direction and causes for optimism heading into the 2020 season, it’s important to contextualize the situation in which these improvements occurred for Austin. Of his 27 AB’s with the Brewers, 17 of them came against teams that were well under .500 at the time. He had 10 AB’s against pitchers who ended the season with a FIP below 4.50 and went a combined 2-9 with a HR, 2 BB, and 4 SO. In what would be the epitome of small sample sizes, these results further reinforce the idea that Austin is improving his ability to get on base via the walk.
Tyler Austin 2019 At-Bats with the Brewers
Based on the FIP of the pitchers above, Tyler Austin had limited exposure to above-average pitching, so his .820 OPS and 104 wRC+ in September must be taken with a grain of salt. Furthermore, his 4 hits during this timeframe came against fastballs, so despite Austin’s positive trend in swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, he wasn’t able to show an improved ability to hit off-speed pitches for base hits. Again, expecting Austin to suddenly start hitting off-speed pitches would be ludicrous. However, by continuing to show the improved walk rates as he did with the Giants and Brewers in 2019, there is reason for optimism moving forward.
Tyler Austin is not a finished product. His ability to hit fastballs is still valuable for the Brewers coming off the bench. It is unclear whether the Brewers will pick up Eric Thames’ option for the 2020 season, but platooning Thames and Austin at first base gives the Brewers lineup versatility as Thames slots in well against RHP’s and Austin’s career .884 OPS and 12.5 BB% plays well against LHP’s. Austin’s defensive value lies is at first base, where his career UZR of -2.4, while not great, is an improvement over his career -8.5 UZR in the outfield. Notwithstanding, while he strictly played first base with the Brewers, Austin’s 1.2 UZR over 137 innings in the outfield with Giants increases his versatility for the Brewers as a power bat off the bench who can play multiple positions at a relatively Major League average level.
At the age of 28, Tyler Austin’s next step in his development is contingent on his improving ability to not swing at off-speed pitches outside the strike zone and attacking early fastballs. During Spring Training, the Brewers stand to benefit from having Austin starting and facing above-average pitching, as this will determine whether his 2019 improvements were a product of the opposing level of competition or of Austin’s growth and improvement as a hitter. Tyler Austin may never hit off-speed pitches at a Major League average rate, but his improved selectivity and continuous ability to hit the fastball merits, at the very least, a spot on the Brewers bench where he provides the team with above-average offense against left-handed pitching.