Tyler Austin (right) is greeted at home plate by Miguel Andujar after Austin’s three-run home run in the first inning on Tuesday night at PNC Field. Times-Tribune photo by Jason Farmer.

Funny how the most popular players in Triple-A always seem to be the ones playing the same position as the least popular players in the majors.

Realistically, there should be a dugout full of unpopular players in the Bronx right now. They fell out of first place for the first time since mid-May last night, with an 8-3 loss to the usually punchless Angels. The starting rotation has collapsed around Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery. The bullpen, outside of Dellin Betances, has largely been ineffective for more than a week. The offense that looked so good at home two weekends ago always seems to be fighting its way from behind.

But in that dugout-full of players who should be unpopular right now, one is starting to separate himself, as unpopular players always seem to do in New York. Which is not great news for Chris Carter.

Last night, the first baseman and last year’s National League home run champ went 0 for 3, struck out once, saw his average dip back down to .201 and made an error in the field. He got pinch hit for in the ninth inning — by Austin Romine — and when asked about the production at first base after the game, manager Joe Girardi responded, “That’s what we have.”

A ringing endorsement, that is not.

Meanwhile, in Moosic, Tyler Austin started the second game of Tuesday night’s doubleheader against Syracuse by blasting a Taylor Hill slider high into the night, deep to center field and onto the grassy hill that separates the bullpens from the camera well. It was a 3-run blast and, although we don’t get exit velocities in the minors, nobody who saw the parabolic drive needed them to know it told a story of Austin’s pure might.

Austin had been trying to find that kind of success lately. He hit the ball hard over the weekend in Buffalo. Before they left for the road, Austin had a game at PNC Field where he pulled two doubles down the left-field line — impressive rips, but not the ones you expect to see from Austin when he’s going at his best. He hadn’t been driving the ball from gap-to-gap as he typically does when his swing is right. But, that’s starting to come, too.

“I feel really good,” Austin said. “I feel like I’ve run into some pretty tough luck, even in Buffalo. But I feel good and am going to try to continue to build off of that and go from there.”

Good enough to take Carter’s at-bats?

Obviously, that’s not going to be Tyler Austin’s decision. But it’s a question many fans have been asking for weeks, and many more asked last night. If the Yankees’ losing ways continue, it might be a question general manager Brian Cashman will ultimately have to address.

Cashman spoke about the first base conundrum with WFAN’s Mike Francesa on Tuesday and kind of offered the same grim outlook on the position Girardi did: Injuries have ravaged a position the club felt good about in March. Ankle injuries cost Austin and Greg Bird time, and Bird hasn’t gotten going, at all. Carter, who was thought to be a hedge against left-handed pitching, “has struggled mightily,” in Cashman’s words.

But when he addressed the immediate future, Cashman kind of advocated for the status quo.

“As of right now,” he told Francesa, “we’re going to go with Chris Carter, and keep running him out there and look for better days to come.

“Ultimately, if things don’t change over time – we’re not sure what we’re going to get from (Charlotte foot specialist) Bob Anderson on Bird yet, so let’s assume we’re not going to see him for quite some time — over time I’ll be forced to look outside the organization if the true answer really doesn’t reside from within.”

Right now, the internal option is Austin, and Austin alone. So, the question: Is he potentially a better option?

And the obvious answer is yes, because potentially is a big word, and because Carter is striking out more than 41 percent of the time he comes to the plate and isn’t on near the home run pace that he has set in recent seasons.

But if Austin is the obvious solution, why hasn’t Cashman called him up?

He told Francesa on Tuesday that, in his estimation, strikeouts have been an issue for Austin. Which is correct. They have been a problem.

Austin has fanned 28 times in 87 at-bats, which is about 32.2 percent of his at-bats ending in punchouts. That’s below Carter’s rate by a good margin this season, for sure, but Carter’s rate is a major league rate. For the sake of comparison, Carter was a 38.3 percent strikeout guy for his big-league career entering 2017, but he he had a career 28.5 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A.

Does that mean anything? I’m not sure. It might mean just that strikeout rates don’t typically fall from Triple-A to the bigs, and Austin is a 30 percent strikeout guy for his career in Triple-A (and 43.4 in a brief stint in the big leagues last year).

So, we’ve established through statistics and Cashman that Austin is going to have to cut back on his strikeouts.

Next question, then, is obvious: Has he?

Austin has played 24 games now with the RailRiders this season, and it might be a good idea to break his production down into eight-game stretches. So, let’s do that:














































Again, what does that say? Well, it says the Rochester pitchers who struck out Austin eight times in three games during that middle stretch might be on to something. Or, it says Austin was just going through a rough patch with his swing (he was, after all, basically getting spring training at-bats in there). But you can take these numbers any way you want, which is the fun thing about stats, isn’t it? You can take the strikeout numbers and say his third stretch was much better than his first. Or, you can take them and say his numbers were much worse the second week than the first.

Or, you can ignore the strikeout numbers altogether and argue that his offensive output has been much better as the weeks have passed.

So, I went to someone who knows a lot more about baseball than I do for some clarity. I asked RailRiders manager Al Pedrique last night to evaluate Austin’s swing now compared to where it was three weeks ago.

“I think it’s a lot shorter now,” Pedrique said. “I think he’s trying to be patient, to make sure (pitchers) are bringing the ball up. They’ve been pitching him a lot down and away, out of the strike zone. And, he has been chasing those.

“He’s going to have to show the pitchers that he’s capable of making the adjustments, and I think that’s what he has done the last two, three games. He has started driving the ball the other way like we know he can do. If he continues being patient, he’s going to start helping us a lot.”

It stands to reason the next few eight-game stretches will be big ones for Tyler Austin, a guy who still has significant improvement to make, but one who more than likely has a major league job waiting for him if he can make them.

And, most importantly, sustain them.