Heading into 2019, Austin Riley was a consensus top-50 prospect. After being called up, Riley tattooed baseballs for three weeks. Through 21 games, Riley was slashing .310/.348/.655 for a blistering 1.003 OPS. He had nine home runs in that stretch.
Over the final 59 games of the season, Riley matched his nine home runs from his hot start to his Major League career. However, instead of hitting nine in 84 at-bats, Riley hit just nine across his last 190 at-bats. He scuttled to a .189/.250/.389 slash line, ending the season with a .750 OPS, his lowest of the season.
Struggles Continue in 2020
2020 featured many of the same issues that plagued Riley in his rookie season. He ended with a pedestrian .239/.301/.415 slash line for a paltry.716 OPS. Perhaps the most indicting evidence against Riley as an MLBer was his -0.7 bWAR in 2020.
Riley opened 2021 without getting an extra-base hit in his first 17 games. At this point, he had a .553 OPS, and frustration began to mount in Braves Country.
Riley’s Best Days
In the final 10 days of the month, Riley blasted a trio of home runs and a pair of doubles. He raised his isolated power from .000 to .143 in that span. His OPS jumped by 297 points.
For 14 days in May and June, Riley had an OPS above .900. After ending June 13th with a .900 OPS, he began a slide. Over 13 games, Riley slashed .149/.212/.191 as he watched his OPS plummet to .811.
Since that day, Riley has been the fourth-best hitter in baseball. Sporting a .333/.412/.676 slash line from June 27 to July 29, Riley trails only Shohei Ohtani, Joey Votto, Juan Soto in OPS among batters with 100 plate appearances. Riley is in the presence of the 2021 AL MVP (Ohtani), the 2010 NL MVP (who is on a hot streak that the league has not seen since 2004 Barry Bonds in Votto), and the only player since Bonds to qualify for the batting title with a 200 OPS+ (Soto). That company is far from shabby. On July 30, Riley whacked another home run to raise his OPS to .899.
What Has Changed:
For the first time in Riley’s career, he has a walk rate above the MLB average. After a 7.8% clip in 2020, Riley is walking in a healthy 9.9% of plate appearances. Through two seasons, Riley had a .288 on-base percentage. In 2021, Riley has a .370 clip. While his batting average is 58 points higher than his 2019 and 2020 numbers (through July 29), a solid amount of the jump stems from his walk totals. In his first two seasons (503 plate appearances), Riley drew 32 walks. He has drawn 41 in 414 plate appearances in 2021.
Riley is far from the elite in terms of plate discipline, but it is impressive that he went from a 45th-percentile xOBP in 2020 to an 81st-percentile xOBP in 2021. Riley is swinging at only 36% of first pitches, the lowest mark of his career. He is swinging at less than half of all seen pitches. While his strikeout rate has ticked up by 0.8%, it is nothing uncontrollable.
In 2019, Riley generated -4 runs of value on four-seam fastballs. In2020, he generated a perfectly average zero runs. 2021 has been an explosion of value as Riley stands with a +14 run value on four-seam fastballs. Among those who have faced 400 four-seam fastballs, Riley is one of eight players with a +14 run value: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Soto, Freddie Freeman, Ohtani, Max Muncy, Votto, and Robbie Grossman joining him.
In simpler terms, Riley is mashing four-seamers. He has a .323 batting average and a .677 slugging percentage. While his expected stats in this regard are slightly lower, his xwOBA is the same as Bryce Harper and better than former MVPs Kris Bryant and Mookie Betts.
Launch angle is a double-edged sword. If it is too high, then a batter hits many pop-ups and fly-outs. If it is too low, then a player hits into many ground-outs. Riley has managed to thread the needle to great effect. While he has a career-low 27.4% line-drive rate, it is still above the league average of25.2%since 2019. In 2019, Riley seemed to sell out for launch angle and fly balls. While he had a career-high .245 isolated power and a 6.1% home run rate, Riley had a paltry .226 average and an 84 OPS+. With a new approach in 2020, Riley’s groundball rate increased from 25.6% to 42.1%, many of these batted balls became easy outs, and Riley’s isolated power dipped to just .176.
In 2021, Riley has settled for a happy medium. He has a career-high rate of solid contact (9.1%) while barreling 12.5% of batted balls. Couple this with a career-low pop-up rate (6.8%), and Riley is forcing the defense to make plays to get him out. Not every barrel or piece of solid contact will be a hit, but those batted balls turn into hits significantly more often than poorly-struck balls.
Riley would likely be in contention if the National League had a Most Improved Player award similar to the NBA’s. The 24-year-old is having a breakthrough campaign, and the Braves should have their corner infielders locked down for the better part of the decade when they eventually extend Freeman’s contract.
The Braves have been disappointing; as of writing, they are two games below .500, but Riley has been a bright spot.
Follow me on Twitter at @MrSplashMan19 for more 2021 MLB MVP content! Don’t forget to join our OT Heroics MLB Facebook group, and feel free to join our new Instagram – @overtimeheroics_MLB, and listen to our baseball podcast, Cheap Seat Chatter! We’ll see ya there.
Come join the discussion made by the fans at the Overtime Heroics forums! A place for all sports!
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images