The Ascension of Austin Riley
Written by Skye Paul (@BravesFromLA)
Austin Riley's batting stance during his improved performance (2021)
Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley has been nothing short of amazing this season, enjoying a .306/.388/.526 slash line and a 147 wRC+ as of June 10th. Although he was considered to be a top prospect not long ago, Riley's breakout campaign was a great surprise to most Braves fans. Many were ready to give up on him after seeing little to no production since his early success in 2019 fizzled out. The 2021 season appeared to be on the same, negative trajectory for Riley, until April 21st, where his offensive performance turned around in a blink of an eye, and he hasn't looked back since. What has Riley done to improve his game so drastically, and how come nobody saw it coming?
First off, let's take a look at Riley's result-based numbers, year by year, to get a better sense of his trend as a hitter leading up to April 21th, 2021.
2019 Season (80 Games):
Slash line: .226/.279/.471 (.750 OPS)
Hard Hit %: 44.6%
2020 Season (51 Games):
Slash line: .239/.301/.415
Hard Hit %: 42.9%
2021 Season Prior To April 21st (17 Games):
Slash line: .220/.333/.220
Hard Hit %: 36.8%
It's quite clear that from a pure results and batted ball standpoint, Riley wasn't improving much year to year, and got off to a truly horrible start in 2021, failing to record a single extra base hit through his first 17 games of play. His hard hit % wasn't improving either, and his expected numbers were not taking big steps forward through these years.
However, a key detail has been missed, a detail hardly anyone pointed out previously. A steady increase in BB% and decrease in K%, signs that Riley's plate discipline has gotten considerably better. This point to a more refined hitter, an improvement in plate approach, which is important to understanding how Riley has now unlocked his potential.
Speaking from a viewers perspective, Austin Riley's plate discipline was awful in 2019. It seemed as if he swung at every slider in the dirt in two strike counts, and would consistently stay on the fastball. I believe there was a misconception about Riley's struggles, many claimed Riley "couldn't hit a slider." I think he's always been able to hit a slider, but wasn't able to tell when it was coming, and failed to recognize how pitchers were pitching him. Watch this clip from 2019 of Riley sitting on a slider and poking it over the right field fence:
Austin Riley hitting a go-ahead three run home run against the Pirates on June 4th, 2019
Plate discipline and approach has always been the core issue behind Riley's struggles. To analyze how much Riley has truly improved his plate approach, let's take a look at O-Swing %. O-Swing % is a simple but important statistic, it evaluates how often a hitter swung at the ball, given that the pitch was outside the strike zone.
O-Swing% Per Season:
2021 (To April 21st): 31.7%
O-Swing% indicates a similar pattern, Riley's plate discipline has progressively gotten better over the past two seasons. It's the skill he lacked when he first came up, the skill that prevented him from sustaining the success he had early on that season. Somehow, Riley's improvements flew completely under the radar these past two years. With the raw power Riley has always had, it was only a matter of time for the power to kick in along with his improved plate approach.
Finally, here's Riley's numbers since April 21st:
Since April 21th, 2021:
Slash line: .327/.398/.613
Hard Hit %: 44%
The numbers are clearly eye-popping, but the important point I want to make is that Riley's BB% and O-Swing% have stayed on the upwards trend seen in his previous struggles, his plate approach has stayed the same during this amazing stretch. Now, pitchers are forced to throw Riley more strikes, unveiling the hit tool scouts raved about during his time in the minor leagues.
With the help of Braves new hitting advisor Chipper Jones, Riley has turned into a premium caliber hitter, everything is coming together for him right now. Unlike his initial performance in 2019, Riley is equipped with a better knowledge of the strike zone and has a solid plan/approach in each at bat he takes. By sticking with such plate approach, I believe Riley can and will continue his recent success. Probably not 170 wRC+ caliber, but still well above average offensive output, a consistent 130 to 140 wRC+ would be my guess.
Riley spoke with former Brave Mark DeRosa on MLB Network about his recent success, he dives into his swing mechanics and overall mentality since his call up in 2019. It's a long but great video, I suggest watching some of it by clicking the link below:
Austin Riley discussing his swing mechanics with Mark DeRosa on MLB Network (2021)
The overarching take-away I want to make from this article is to remind fans to have patience. Baseball is full of young stars such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Juan Soto, players that are so talented they've never endured prolonged struggles and have never been forced to make significant adjustments like Riley has. Because of the bar these lite players set, many fans expect all young players to produce consistent all-star caliber numbers right after they get called up, which is not a fair expectation to have for any player. Fans, even some teams, give up on players like Austin Riley as a result of these inflated expectations, preventing them from receiving the time they need to make adjustments. I see similar judgments being made on players such as Gavin Lux, Carter Kieboom, and Cristian Pache, guys who simply haven't yet gotten time to make adjustments, the immense prospect hype led people to believe these players would instantly become all-star level players. Trust the process, dig into the underlying numbers, and give players the opportunity to fulfill their potential.