Leading up to the 2021 Atlanta Braves season, many had speculated that this was a sort of “prove it” year for Atlanta Braves third basemen, Austin Riley. After bursting onto the scene in 2019 by slugging .628 and accumulating 1.0 fWAR in his first 30 games. After that, Riley has been middling at best.
After his first 30 games, Riley has been below replacement level. The rest of his career through the 2020 season saw him play 101 games with a .208 batting average and a .384 slugging percentage for a dreadful 68 wRC+ and -0.9 fWAR. To put that in perspective, 215 hitters had at least 350 regular seasons PAs from June 17, 2019, to the end of 2020, and Riley ranked 212nd in fWAR, 210th in wRC+, and 201st in K%. With an extended slump like that, it’s not hard to see why this past offseason some fans were clamoring for the Braves to make an upgrade at third base.
The beginning of the 2021 Atlanta Braves season saw more of the same from Riley. While every hitter on the team not named Ronald Acuña Jr. saw a slow start, Riley’s slow start again placed him in the back of the pack with other qualified hitters. Here you can see how he stacked up against the other 181 qualified hitters in his first 51 plate appearances:
2021 Atlanta Braves: Austin Riley
Season Start – 4/17 / 15 G 51 PA
.250 BABIP T133/182
.182 AVG T151/182
.275 OBP 149/182
.182 SLG T179/182
.456 OPS 176/182
.000 ISO 1 of 4 players with .000 ISO
.211 wOBA T176/182
30 wRC+ 177/182
Recording a total of zero extra-base hits in 51 plate appearances is not a recipe for MLB success as a hitter, plus being in the bottom 5% of players for slugging, OPS, and wOBA is a serious concern playing for a team that is supposed to be a strong World Series contender. But Riley in his next 51 plate appearances decided it was time for his second career hot streak, and since has ranked like this amongst the other 173 qualified hitters:
4/18 – 5/3 / 13 G 51 PA
.654 BABIP 1/173 (Next highest is J.D. Davis at .571)
.488 AVG 1/173
.588 OBP 1/173
.756 SLG 3/173
1.344 OPS 1/173 (Next highest is Bryce Harper 1.275)
.268 ISO 36/173
.567 wOBA 1/173
256 wRC+ 1/173
Having 51 plate appearances as a bottom 5% hitter and then the next 51 being the top hitter in all of Major League Baseball is truly a confusing and stark duality. So what could be causing the offensive eruption Riley is seeing? It’s hard to say he is breaking out of a slump since he just finished the last season and a half at a 64 wRC+, so has Riley finally found some secret sauce and made adjustments so this run of success will stick? Let’s look at some changes he’s made over the first month of the season.
The first thing that really jumped out was the O-Contact% and the Z-Swing% difference in Riley’s first 15 games and the next 13 games. One of Riley’s biggest concerns going all the way back to his time in the minors was his strikeout rate. When he put the bat on the ball there was no doubt he had the potential to be a major leaguer, the problem lied in whether or not he could make consistent contact against major league pitching.
It seems to start the season, Riley tried to be patient and swung less at pitches inside the zone. Because of this, he would be required to swing more to protect himself in two-strike counts. That’s why we see at around game 5 that Z-Swing and Z-Contact dipped to a low and O-Swing rose to a high. My best guess is that these were the unintended consequences of an overcorrection to strike out less.
After the first week, Riley scrapped the patience game plan and increased his swings at pitches inside the zone, the result being the streak he is on the last 51 PAs mentioned before:
While it’s not ideal for Riley to be a free swinger and strike out over 30% of his plate appearances, it seems as though a happy medium of patience and aggressiveness is what works for Riley. We can clearly see the more he swings at pitches inside the zone, the better the results that occur.
Riley just turned 24 years old on April 2 of this year. Braves fans have been spoiled in recent memory by prospects coming up and instantly delivering such as Acuña, Albies, and Soroka, but it’s easy to forget just how raw Riley really is. Due to the 2020 COVID season, from 2019-2021 Riley only has 159 games played and 605 plate appearances, so essentially we’ve only had a single season’s worth of sample to evaluate Riley. To look at his career as a whole and believe you know who he really is as a baseball player may truly be foolish, but it’s up to Austin whether or not he can stay locked in and keep this stretch going and solidify his spot in the lineup for the foreseeable future. As of right now, here’s how he stacks up against the rest of the qualified hitters:
Season Start – 5/3
.431 BABIP 6/164
.329 AVG 13/164
.431 OBP 6/164 (Leads all 3B)
.459 SLG T57/164
.890 OPS 28/164
.129 ISO 114/164
.391 wOBA 22/164
144 wRC+ 30/164
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main image credit Embed from Getty Images