Braves: Austin Riley and the month of June

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Statistically, May of 2019 may have been the best month of Austin Riley’s major league career thus far, but the then 22-year-old’s month of June will be the one he’ll most likely never forget. Just ask a few of the NL East’s most dominant starting pitchers.

Granted, it’s still unfortunate Riley’s 2019 season ended the way it did. For someone who maybe didn’t watch the first 40-50 games of his big league career, it may be difficult to recall what was so special about the former Braves’ prospect. After all, Riley wrapped up last season with just a .226 AVG (.750 OPS) overall and a bloated K-rate of 39.4%. But we Braves fans know there’s more to his story…

Riley busted onto the Braves scene on May 15 last year after crushing Triple-A Gwinnett to the tune of a .391 AVG and 13 home runs, including a 1.518 OPS(!). The Stripers offense was enjoying its juiced ball, and no one was benefiting from it more than the Braves’ 2015 first-round pick. Although even at the big stage… Riley never missed a beat. 

Riley kicked off his time with the Braves by immediately posting a 4-game hitting streak and hitting safely in 6 of his first 9 games. Literally from Game 1, Riley was on an entirely different level.

 

By Game 15 of his big league career — and the end of May — Riley carried a remarkable .356/.397/.746 slash-line with 7 home runs and 20 RBI. 

 

Riley’s May was his hottest with the bat, but it wasn’t just his stats reaping the rewards. The Braves won 9 of those first 15 games with Riley in the lineup, and it came at a tough spot in the schedule, featuring teams such as the Cardinals, Brewers, and Nationals. The Braves were 21-21 when he got there, though the team entered June at 30-27.

But as I mentioned above, this wasn’t the best part of Riley’s season. Of Riley’s top-10 home runs in 2019 — per Win Probability Added (WPA) — half of them came in June. He posted extraordinary numbers during his initial debut in May, but a month later, he evolved into a real difference-maker for the Braves. Here’s a look at his best moments from June last season:

 

June 1 vs. DET

 Riley’s month of fun started on June 1 in a Saturday evening matchup against the Tigers at Truist Park. Daniel Norris versus Mike Soroka was the head-to-head, and Soroka labored through his 6th win of the 2019 season, holding Detroit to 4 runs from 7 hits and striking out 5 in a 100-pitch effort. 

It was a great offensive game for the Braves, who like the Tigers tallied 11 hits as a team, including home runs from Riley, Freddie Freeman, and Dansby Swanson… though Riley’s was most crucial, given it came in the 6th inning with the Braves holding onto a one-run lead. His two-run homer put the Braves up 6-3, and they eventually won 10-5. Riley left that game holding a .349 AVG. 

 

June 4 @ PIT

“Did he keep it fair?”… yes, he did. This was the first of two times that Riley made Pittsburgh’s Kyle Crick pay (the next one coming just a little over a week later), and at the time, it was the young star’s biggest hit of his career. When Riley stepped to the plate, the Braves had just a 25% win expectancy, but after his 3-run homer, that figure jumped up to 67% (0.42 WPA). 

Riley finished the game with 3 total hits, and the Braves broke it open and scored 9 runs in the final 3 innings to win 12-5.

 

June 12 vs. PIT

 Despite this being perhaps the best game of Riley’s career in a Braves uniform up to this point, Ozzie Albies wound up the hero by slapping a walk-off double in the 11th to win it 8-7. However, if it weren’t for Riley’s game-tying solo homer in the bottom of the 9th, to tie the Braves and Pirates at 7 apiece, Albies never would’ve had the opportunity. That 9th-inning long ball came off Crick and gave the Braves a 0.43 WPA swing (the most WPA by Riley in a single at-bat yet). 

Riley also tripled in the Braves’ win over Pittsburgh, finishing 3-for-5 with 3 RBI. His batting average had fallen to (just) .293 at the time, but Riley was still coming up big for the Braves… and he wasn’t done. 

 

June 21 @ WSN

 

This hit by Riley didn’t come late in the game. In fact, it was just a 2-run homer in the 2nd inning of a 0-0 game versus the Nationals… however, it came against the almighty Stephen Strasburg and that means something, especially considering Riley had been in the majors for essentially all of a month at that point. 

The Braves’ Dallas Keuchel was matched up with Strasburg during this Friday night tilt and both starters weren’t their best, allowing 3 runs apiece, but thanks to Riley’s 2nd-inning homer and Freeman’s RBI double the very next inning, the Braves squeaked by and stole one from the Nats. 

 

June 29 @ NYM

 

The biggest bomb of them all was his majestic tiebreaking solo-homer in the 8th inning against Seth Lugo and the Mets. Riley knew it was gone. Lugo knew it… and everyone watching did too. And what made it even better was that Riley’s homer came immediately after the one Nick Markakis hit, giving the Braves a 5-4 lead in the span of just five pitches from Lugo. 

Swanson and Ronald Acuna both had a hell of a game that night, each tallying 3 hits apiece, but Riley’s 2-for-4 performance was what made the difference for the Braves, and his 8th-inning drive pushed the Braves’ win expectancy from 45% up to 73% (0.28 WPA). The score stuck, and the Braves wound up winning 5-4, notching their 50th win of the 2019 season. 

There are even more from June. In fact, all 7 of Riley’s June home runs land inside his top-13 in terms of biggest homers of the 2019 season (per WPA). There was the 2-run homer off deGrom to break a scoreless tie with the Mets on June 28; a solo-shot off Nola and the Phillies to give the Braves a 1-0 lead on June 15; and another solo-homer against the Marlins’ Caleb Smith on June 6. Those three all came early in the game (all were in the 2nd inning as a matter of fact), but they were hit off pitchers who’ve made a name for themselves in the big leagues, including a back-to-back Cy Young winner in deGrom and a top-three finisher from 2018 in Nola.

Sure, Riley’s 2019 season was severely tainted when he hit just .161 in the second half, including just 2 home runs in 31 games, but anyway you slice it his accomplishments during the month of June makes it easy to hope for even more in 2020.

 

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