- Sept. 8, 2021: Riley is at an fWAR of 3.7 for the season, third on the team, trailing only Acuña’s 4.3 and Albies’ 3.8 (side note: Can we talk about how absurd it is that Ronald Acuña, Jr.’s fWAR is that high despite not having played a game since July 10th? Just speaks to the kind of year he was having). That figure leads all National League third basemen (and trails three AL 3B’s; you can probably name them off the top of your head). For Riley, this isn’t a matter of a guy simply on a hot streak (as we’ve actually seen Riley do in two short years) or establishing a new element of his skill set. This is a mental side that’s far more difficult to quantify.
The Athletic’s Keith Law (paid subscription) has a great writeup on what some of those mental changes entailed. As easy as it might be for us normies to think it might be to figure out the strike zone and improve pitch recognition—or at the very least think of it as a sort of black and white concept—it is very much not that. Rather than regurgitate what Law features in his article, we’ll simply look at the outputs that have resulted from Riley's reevaluation of pitch selection and the zone itself.
Riley’s K% is the exact same as it was last year (as of this writing), at 23.8 percent. That’s hardly a number to scoff at. Especially when the walk rate is up (9.1 percent), the whiffs are down (12.4 percent), and he’s making contact at a higher-than-ever rate (74.7 percent). More importantly is that while he’s demonstrated improvement there, the power has also returned. His ISO is at .233, with 29 homers thus far. It all culminates in an absolutely eye-popping slash of .305/.377/.538/.915 and a wRC+ of 141.
What’s really cool about Riley’s breakout is that he isn’t necessarily swinging less. Well, he is swinging less (49.1 Swing% is about five off of last year), but that’s a not general explanation as to how he’s finding the level of success that he is. Against breaking and offspeed pitches, he’s dropped his swing rate by barely a single percentage point. Yet, he’s managed to cut his whiff rate against those pitches in extremely significant fashion, including an 11 percent decrease in Whiff% against offspeed pitches. It’s all about pitch recognition here, and it’s making all the difference. He’s taking those tools and now building on them.
And, really, the 3.7 fWAR mark is kind of another minor miracle when you consider that he ranks among the league’s worst fielders, regardless of position. But we’re not here to litigate that—or Riley’s potential MVP candidacy, for that matter. Riley’s breakout is fun regardless and really speaks to that mental side of the game that we don’t always get to see transpire. In this case, the results just so happen to speak for themselves.
|Birth City:||Memphis, TN|
|Draft:||Braves #1 (suppl.) - 2015 - Out of high school (MS)|
Before Riley's senior year (2015) at Desoto Central High School in Southaven, Mississippi, he committed to Mississippi State. He is a good student, graduating with approximately a 3.35 GPA.
In high school, Austin was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he has volunteered locally on behalf of the Special Olympics and as a youth baseball coach.
In 2014, Riley was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Mississippi. The junior at Desoto Central High in Southaven was 8-3 with a 1.51 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 61 innings, while also hitting .472 with 9 home runs and 34 RBI and a .577 on-base percentage through 37 games.
June 2015: Riley was the Braves supplemental first round pick (#41 overall), out of Desoto Central High in Southaven, Mississippi. And he signed for $1.6 million, which was about $53,000 above slot. Don Thomas is the scout who signed him.
Austin has a strong, athletic build, and impressive looseness for his size and strength. He is a well-rounded athlete. And he is a high quality young man.
Riley has a real love for the game. His makeup and work ethic are impressive.
- Riley's dad was a standout punter at Mississippi State University.
Riley pitched and played shortstop last year as a high school senior at DeSoto Central in Southaven, MS. Riley also played football in high school, becoming an all-state punter. “My dad taught me that; it was fun,” he said. But he gave up quarterbacking following his sophomore season due to the time-demand conflict with baseball.
Many teams saw Riley as a better pitching prospect coming out of high school. The Braves disagreed, believing in Riley’s power. He’s rewarded their faith by hitting 20 home runs in each of his first two full seasons while advancing to Double-A Mississippi at age 20 in 2017.
In 2016, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Riley as the 5th-best prospect in the Braves organization. He was at #11 in February 2017. They moved Austin back up, to #6 in 2018.
And he was the #1 prospect in the Braves' organization in the Spring of 2019.
In 2017, Riley was invited to play in the AFL Fall Stars Game.
Austin embraced the Braves’ focus on improving his nutritional habits. He appears slimmer, stronger and quicker than he was when drafted.
Riley is an avid outdoorsman. After hitting two bombs for the Mississippi Braves, he went night fishing off the southeastern Louisiana coast.
In 2018, MLB Pipeline named Riley the Braves' Player of the Year.
Austin completely cut out junk food and focused on conditioning. By 2018, he had slimmed down and was notably more athletic and nimble.
MLB debut (May 14, 2019): As Braves fans anxiously wondered whether Ender Inciarte’s early exit from the game would lead to Austin Riley gaining a much-anticipated promotion, Triple-A Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill was having trouble getting in touch with the highly regarded prospect.
“I’m thinking he must have my old [cell] number,” Riley said.
Berryhill had been instructed to inform Riley he was being called to the Majors. But he was unable to deliver the message until he called pitcher Kolby Allard, who was hanging with Riley in pitcher Bryse Wilson’s room at the team hotel in Buffalo, New York.
“Since I started playing T-ball, this has been my one love,” Riley said. “To finally be here, I’m going to try to take it in as much as I can.”
After spending the past three weeks hitting approximately a mile’s worth of home runs, Riley made the 700-mile flight from Buffalo to Atlanta and made his Major League debut a few hours later. Riley played left field and batted sixth against the Cardinals.
MLB Pipeline ranks Riley as the No. 4 prospect in Atlanta’s organization and baseball’s No. 34 prospect. Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cincinnati’s Nick Senzel are the only players ranked as a better third base prospect.
Now that he has arrived, Riley can continue to plan to play on an everyday basis. He’ll be used primarily as a left fielder, but he’ll occasionally spell Josh Donaldson at third base and possibly handle the other corner infield spot when Freddie Freeman chooses to rest. (M Bowman - MLB.com - May 15, 2019)
2020 Season: At first glance of the stats, Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley didn’t exactly have a year to remember. If you are a lover of WAR and wRC+, for example, the Braves slugger fell short of expectations.
For people that have watched Riley grow throughout his career, however, there was plenty to be happy with in the odd season that 2020 was. So odd that the best of Austin Riley and the worst of Austin Riley all unfolded in the last series of the season.
What went right
The season started with a duel for the third base spot way back in spring training. Riley and Johan Camargo were rolling in a heated battle when play came to a screeching halt. The third baseman ended his strong spring campaign hitting .375 with four home runs in 14 games, appearing to have Camargo beat out for the job.
Then the world shut down. Riley was the “Opening Day” third baseman, which is certainly a huge “what went right” for the Braves. His first few weeks were a nightmare. He ended July with just two hits, striking out eight times and walking just twice.
But as the season grew on, Riley was clearly taking better at bats, cutting down his O-Swing percentage quite a bit. He was working counts and while he still had plenty of swing-and-miss in him, he simply looked better at the plate. Unfortunately that’s not always measurable in statistics. He did have a much improved August when he hit .286 with five home runs and 17 RBI in 22 games.
Overall, his 2020 peripherals were better from his 2019 debut. He walked 7.8 percent of the time and struck out 23.8 percent of the time, a vast improvement from the 36.4 percent the year prior. And he still showed off that raw power we all dream of seeing come to fruition, with a nearly 43 percent hard-hit rate and an exit velocity of 91.0. Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter much when it’s hit right at people, evidenced by his .280 BABIP, the lowest of his entire professional career.
Defensively, he’s still a bit of an enigma. A former pitcher, there is little issue with his arm, and he has shown the ability to make pretty darn good plays. Now, he just needs to string it all together consistently, but the days of worrying if he can defensively man the hot corner seem to be behind him. Left field is a horse of a different color. It’s probably better to focus on the infield.
Riley hit a home run in the top of the ninth of Game 1 of the NLCS, which proved to be the game-winner. It was definitely a high point of his 2020. After a big go-ahead RBI single a few days later, his fortunes would quickly change in Game 7. He ran into an out at third base that completed an unusual 5-2-5-6 double play for the Dodgers, which may have changed the course of the game.
What went wrong
If Riley proved he can handle third base in the field in 2020, the jury is still out with the bat. Yours truly thinks (hopes?) it’s about to all come together, but numbers, as they say, don’t lie.
If you’re into metrics, well, it certainly wasn’t pretty. He had -0.7 bWAR and an 89 wRC+, a number reasonably below average. It’s also fair to point out he was trying to adjust to a new swing and was playing dinged up towards the end of the year. Of course, Riley’s season ended on the base paths in one of the oddest rundowns in recent history. That’s was probably his ultimate “what went wrong” of 2020.
What’s in store for 2021
Riley will be 24 on Opening Day. And while he has played two seasons now, his 131 total games don’t even equal a full year at the big league level.
Why is that a big deal? Riley comes with a lot of question marks, and kind of always has. Will he hit consistently at the big league level? Can he play defensively everyday at third base? Will he be able to hit breaking stuff?
And since we haven’t really seen what he can do over a normal 162 season, the answers to most of those questions are unanswered. Riley is a player who has constantly made adjustments. He did so with his swing entering 2020 and his patience at the plate improved. At the same time, more advanced metrics like a decreased launch angle and a higher ground-ball rate than 2019 were conundrums.
It’s probably fair to expect Riley’s name to come up in some trade rumors here and there. It won’ be the first time and probably not the last. But it would likely take a big move to replace him as the 2021 Opening Day third baseman. (Wayne Cavadi - Nov 7, 2020)
Riley is a righthanded hitter with a balanced swing and very good bat speed. He has big-time, 70 grade raw power to the middle of the field and to his pull side. His powerful swing is geared for lifting the ball, so he strikes out a lot. But he doesn't chase too many pitches out of the zone.
He has a pull-heavy approach when he gets into advantageous counts but has the strength and power to drive the ball out to right and right-center field. Riley’s pull-heavy approach leads to a strikeouts, but he has always managed to stay on the right side of the line that separates free-swingers who can’t hit from those who can hit enough to get to their power.
Riley’s bat-to-ball skills give him a chance to be an average 50 grade hitter to go with his excellent power. He’s shown an ability to make adjustments. His swing is more direct to the ball, and he has sped up his hands as a pro. (J.J. Cooper - Baseball America Prospect Handbook - 1/4/2019)
Austin is able to lift the ball, generating his 25-30 per season home run power to all fields. He can really punish a mistake.
“He really has a good feel for hitting,” Braves assistant farm director Jon Schuerholz said. “He works so hard on both the offensive and defensive side, and that has really shown in the results. The sky is the limit for this guy.” (Spring 2018)
In 2017, he shortened his stroke, improving his bat speed and get to his 60 grade power more often.
Austin can destroy a baseball when he barrels one. He hits them a long way, projecting to grow into 70 grade power—that's game-changing kaboom!
Riley also sprays the ball around the yard for a pretty good batting average. He has an average 50 grade on his hit tool.
Austin has a solid overall approach at the plate. He has good pitch selection and a good feel for the strike zone, so expect him to work his way into some free passes and a good on-base percentage.
But he does have some swing-and-miss in his game.
Riley makes adjustments at the plate. He was not able to hit inside pitches. So he adjusted his hitting setup for a more direct path to a ball in on his hands. It also helped lower his K-rate.
It's important that Austin, like all prospects, encounters rough patches in order to learn how to work his way out of difficulty.
“His character is off the charts,” Braves assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz said during 2018 Spring Training. “Anything he accomplishes does not surprise me. He has a good feel for hitting and the potential to be that righthanded power bat we haven’t had in our system in a long time.”
Austin's power blossomed in 2018, That power is to all fields, but he goes particularly well to right-center field.
October 26, 2017: Riley hit for the first cycle in the Arizona Fall League since Logan Morrison did so on Oct. 30, 2008.
2017 Season: Riley hit .275/.339/.446 across 129 games with Class A Advanced Florida and Double-A Mississippi, including a .315 average in 48 games after he was promoted to Mississippi.
2018 Season: Austin put together his most complete all-around season, hitting .294/.360/.522 with 19 home runs and 30 doubles.
May 2019: Braves left fielder Austin Riley was the NL Rookie of the Month for May. Riley, 22, has been a force since debuting with Atlanta on May 15. The Mississippi native joined Rhys Hoskins (2017), Trevor Story (2016) and Carlos Delgado (1994) as the fourth player in Major League history to go deep at least 8 times in his first 16 career games.
Riley’s first 15 games in May included seven dingers, two doubles and 20 RBIs as he slashed .356/.397/.746. According to Statcast, Riley’s 23 hard-hit balls (those hit with 95-plus-mph exit velocities) led the Braves for all of May—even though he didn’t debut until halfway through the month.
June 12, 2019: Riley, the 21-year-old prospect (the Braves' No. 4 per MLB Pipeline) has hit 10 home runs and constructed a .959 OPS through his first 26 games. Riley's ninth-inning home run made him the fastest Braves player to reach 10 career homers, besting the record previously held by Wally Berger (29 games in 1930).
July 3, 2019: Less than two months after being told that he might play left field a couple of times a week at the Triple-A level, Austin Riley has produced one of the most power-filled starts to a Major League career and helped the homer-happy Braves match an achievement realized just one other time in franchise history.
Over the 45 games played dating back to Riley’s Major League debut on May 15, the Braves have hit 31 more homers than they did in the 42 games played before he was promoted. So maybe, there’s been reason to expect this potent lineup to explode like it has.
The 22-year-old outfielder 15 homers through his first 45 games. He’s the ninth player in MLB history to reach that total within that span and just the second Braves player to do so.
Wally Berger hit 17 homers through the first 45 games of his career for the 1930 Boston Braves. Gary Sanchez holds the MLB record with 19 homers within that span.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have 15 already,” Riley said. “There’s a lot of season left and a lot of stuff to work on. Fifteen home runs is great. But a single every now and then, or a walk or two, would also be nice.”
2019 Season: Though the Braves still see Austin as a dynamic player for them, his 2019 season was not quite what they were looking for.
"It was an inconsistent season,” GM Alex Anthopoulos said before the 2019 winter meetings. "He came up, he was unbelievable. Then they found some holes and he needed to make adjustments and changes. As we sit here today, do I see us cementing him and giving him a position going into next year, whether it’s outfield or third base? That’s unlikely at this point."
First 18 games: .150/.200/.317 Last 33 games: .281/.348/.461
Early in the season, Riley bounced between starting at third base, left field, and first base and was never able to find a rhythm. Once the Braves stopped moving him around in mid-August and kept him at his natural position, third base, he got comfortable and showed hints of becoming the impact hitter long predicted. Particularly promising, his strikeout rate dropped from 34% to 19% over the season’s final six weeks. (Kyle Glaser - BA - April, 2021)
- May 24, 2021: Riley was named NL Player of the Week. He tied for the MLB lead for the week with his six homers and nine runs scored and had the second-most RBIs, 11, behind Fernando Tatis Jr. The 24-year-old third baseman batted .462 with a Major League-best 1.308 slugging percentage and 1.772 OPS. It was the first Player of the Week Award for Riley.
- As of the start of the 2021 season, Austin's career Major League stats were: .232 batting average, 26 home runs with 76 RBI and 107 hits in in 462 at-bats.
Austin exhibits very good footwork and good hands at third base. And he is quick and agile for such a big guy, displaying improved lateral range. He makes the play now on most balls hit to his left. And he guards the line well
Defensively, Riley’s conditioning and work has helped him turn himself into a plus defender. His plus-plus arm is his best attribute, but he also has developed the quick feet and quick hands scouts look for at third base. His quickness is more of the first-step variety because his raw speed is below-average.
Riley has a loose, quick arm, shows the ability to get his feet into throwing position, and gets very good carry on his throws. His arm rates a plus-plus 70 grade, on the 20-80 scale. His throws are accurate.
While he lacks speed and will have to watch his weight, he lacks soft hands, but has clean infield actions. He has improved his first-step quickness and now gets a 60 grade for his fielding. (Spring 2019)
Austin exhibits controlled athleticism.
During 2018 Spring Training with the big league club, Atlanta third-base coach Ron Washington took the 21-year-old under his wing at the Braves' complex in Sarasota County, Florida. The former big league infielder demonstrated to him the intricacies of playing the hot corner.
"Man, I can't express enough at how good he is and how much baseball knowledge he has about defense," Riley said. "Just working with him for the short amount of time I had made me that much better defensively. I'm seeing the ball and moving my feet a lot better, I worked on a couple things with the glove that have already helped in the seven games that we've played."
The first two days of camp, the 21-year-old mostly tried to stay out of the way of the club's veterans as they worked on the diamond, but Washington wasn't having any of that.
"Coach came up to me and said 'I want to work with you every day,' and that really meant a lot," Riley said.
Riley was able to chat with Braves Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones, and even though their conversations were mostly about hunting, being in the presence of a legend made a significant impact on him as well.
"It's an honor," the Memphis, Tennessee native said. "Chipper is around and you get to pick his brain. Right there, I said to myself, 'I'm pretty friggin' lucky to just be able to talk to him.' If I'm even just half as good as he was, then I had a pretty dang good career." (Josh Horton - MiLB.com - 4/12/2018)
Before the 2018 season, Austin chiseled his 6-foot-3 frame, making him a better defender. His arm strength remains among the best in the organization, and his hands are soft enough to remain on the infield. With his footwork improving, he is on the fast track to Atlanta.
“Before last year (2017), I played around 235 or so,” Riley said. “I just thought that being at third base, which is a reaction position, if I dropped down to 225, I might be able to move better. I did, and my body felt great. It added (at least) a half-step to my game.”
- Austin's run speed is below average at 40 on the 20-80 scale. But he really has a solid feel for running the bases for such a big guy.
June 6-July 12, 2018: Riley was on the DL with a sprained knee. He injured it diving for a ball.
- August 5-September 6, 2019: Riley was placed on the injured list with a right knee ailment.