LENZ: What is Tyler Austin's Future?

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In the three weeks since joining the Twins, Tyler Austin has played the best baseball of his career.

The oft-injured first baseman was acquired in the Lance Lynn trade from the New York Yankees, and while Lynn pitched 14 innings for the Yankees before giving up his first run, he has since come back down to earth with 13 earned runs over his last 15 innings pitched.

Meanwhile, Twins fans have been pleasantly surprised as Austin has slashed .267/.338/.633 in his first 68 plate appearances as many wrote him off before he could even board his plane out of New York City.

Austin, drafted 415th overall in 2010 by the Yankees, has always been projected to provide power at the major league level having “plus-plus power” according to his Perfect Game USA profile.

Baseball Savant states that “he recognizes pitches and controls the strike zone, patiently working counts while waiting for something he can drive.”

Despite his scouting report, Austin hit only 80 home runs in 2,624 minor league plate appearances while striking out at a 22.7 percent rate and drawing walks at a 10.3 percent rate. For minor-league baseball, his strikeout and walk rates are considered to be average, at best.

Unsurprisingly, these numbers only got worse at the major-league level as his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate decreased; although he was hitting home runs at almost twice the rate he was in the minors.

With the uncertain future of Joe Mauer and four more years of the Twins controlling Austin, the franchise is faced with the following questions:

  • Is Austin someone the Twins can rely on to replace Mauer in the near future?  
  • Is Austin finally turning into the player scouts thought he would become or are the last three weeks an anomaly?

To answer these questions let’s look at his hitting tendencies as a Yankee and compare them to what he has done so far as a Twin.

As I suggested earlier, his strikeout rate and walk rate with the Yankees were not good at 39.6 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively, over 268 plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, they labeled his strikeout rate as “awful” and his walk rate as “below average” despite his Baseball Savant scouting report stating he “controls the strike zone.”

These rates have improved in his 68 plate appearances as a Twin, but his strikeout rate — 30.9 percent — is still “awful” while his walk rate — 10.3 percent — is considered “above average.”

At first look, it may seem that Austin’s plate tendencies are trending in the right direction, but let’s keep digging here.

My next set of observations started looking at how Austin is getting attacked by opposing pitchers and if there have been any changes in perceived weaknesses.

As with most power hitters, they can be beaten with breaking balls low and away or fastballs up and in. The reason for this, as you can see in the GIF below, is because a low and away breaking ball looks like it’s hanging in the middle of the zone before it bites out of the strike zone.

On the other hand, power hitters typically love high heat but have a hard time catching up and don’t have time to extend their arms on an inside fastball.

These generalizations fit how Austin has been attacked by opposing pitchers as both a Twin and Yankee. What you will find discouraging is that he is falling for the same types of pitches.

Compare the heat maps below which displays his whiff per swing rate as a Yankee (left) as compared to a Twin (right) and you’ll notice they look pretty similar.

(image credit: Brooks Baseball)

That is, despite Austin’s recent success as a Twin, his approach at the plate hasn’t changed which indicates that things are too good to be true and that he may be getting a bit lucky.

So where is this power coming from?  

Among players with at least 200 plate appearances this season, he is ranked first with a 38.5 percent home run per flyball (HR/FB) rate.

Furthermore, as a Twin exactly half of his fly balls have gone over the fence — which is definitely unsustainable over a bigger sample size. To put this into perspective, FanGraphs says that an HR/FB rate of 20 percent is considered “excellent.”

To answer the questions posed above, enjoy the power surge while you can because his tendencies at the plate haven’t changed and it’s only a matter of time before he comes back to the hitter he was as a Yankee.

That said, he is definitely a player the Twins should keep around for at least another year with the power potential he has. He may not be a viable Mauer replacement right now, but with some work, he could become a middle of the order bat if he can improve his discipline at the plate.

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