Braves: Austin Riley’s Defensive Gains

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This piece is about Austin Riley’s defensive gains, but to gain a little clarity of the player he is, let’s take a look at the offensive adjustments Austin Riley has made over the course of his career..

  • Rookie Ball, 2015: 1st 7 games, .321 OPS *adjust*, last 52, 1.101 OPS
  • Low-A, 2016: 1st 26 games, .675 OPS *adjust*, last 103, .834 OPS
  • High-A, 2017: 1st 63 games, .716 OPS, *adjust*, last 66, .852 OPS
  • Double-A, 2018: 27 games, 1.071 OPS, promoted to AAA.
  • Triple-A, 2018: 1st 6 games, .599 OPS, *adjust*, last75, .841 OPS

Austin Riley Adjusting to MLB Pitching

From an offensive perspective, this has always been his modus operandi. Way back in 2017, I wrote about his adjustments at every level and his ability to adapt his offensive game after digesting the competition. In the MLB, his offensive adjustments were longer and more pronounced. In 2018, upon his promotion to the bigs, Riley took the league by storm, homering in his first MLB game and completing the year with a .908 OPS.

But it wasn’t all roses for Riley in 2019 as the league adjusted to him and ate him alive with off-speed. His numbers dropped, and he finished the season with a .750 OPS. That offseason, Riley worked hard on pitch recognition and was determined to not get beat by the slider. He didn’t, but…

In 2020, Riley stopped chasing the slider. Almost entirely. However, a new hole developed due to the hyper-focus on the off-speed as he had a hard time catching up to a fastball, which resulted in 168 strikeouts and, what I hope to stay this way, a career-low OPS of .716.

But 2021…oh how glorious. Unlike his years in the minors that were midseason adjustments, Riley went to work on keeping his bat in the zone longer, not chasing, and using a slight stance adjustment to help the bat get around his big body, and boy did it work! In a season for the ages, Riley mashed 33 home runs, drove in 107, batted over .300, and carried a monstrous .898 OPS, all the while playing 160 games as the Braves everyday 3B.

It was the bat that got him the call to the bigs and now Austin Riley’s defensive gains might be the thing that keeps him here.

The Adjustments that Made the Difference

We see it. Austin Riley has a great arm. We also see that Riley has great quick twitch skills. However, in the beginning of the year, that big arm was sporadic, even wild, and coming in on the ball seemed as foreign to him as I am when I try to make handmade ravioli. However, like all of Austin’s adjustments, this one took time, dedication, and if we’re being honest, professional experience.

At midseason, Riley was carrying -12 OAA (outs above average) according to Statcast. Half of those were from poor jumps when coming in on the ball, and the rest were either from the aforementioned sporadic arm or balls down the line. For me, the eye test backed that up.

Now, fast-forward to September — Austin Riley looked like the best defensive 3rd baseman in the game. I can recall three balls that he came in on with quick jumps, bare-handed, and slung them to Freddie Freeman for a very tough out. His arm has been on point. And while he still struggles a bit down the line, his glove is good and his athleticism has shined. In this piece from Mike Petriollo, he discusses an entire defensive “shift” the Braves took to on May 20th and continued throughout the year. The money quote in terms of Riley:

“Early on we were shifting, like I said, every lefty I was going over [to short right field],” Riley said. “And we kind of were getting beat a little bit with some slaps to the other way. And just those, like really just focusing on guys that extremely pull the ball, I think, is what the minor adjustment is what we had to make.”

Riley, per OAA, was roughly average or only slightly below in both April (-1 OAA) and May (-2). He was baseball’s weakest fielder in June (-8 OAA) as the shifts ramped up, though that’s not just about advanced metrics; at one point, he made five errors in five days. It settled down in July (+1 OAA) and August (+1 OAA); in September, he’d rebounded so well that at +5 OAA, he looked like one of baseball’s best third basemen.

Hi, I’m Ryan and I’m a School Teacher and Should Stay that Way

Over the course of the offseason and early season, I pined for the Braves to grab a 3B and shift Riley to LF. It wasn’t a long-term solution, rather a 2021 solution, as it seemed Riley just wasn’t ready to become the Braves starting 3B, at least defensively. What my tiny brain failed to realize was, like I’d been writing for years, Riley is the kind of player that needs time to adjust, and by removing him from 3B, I wasn’t granting him that time.

Thanks for reading about Austin Riley’s Defensive Gains! If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at another piece from Ryan on the Braves Arbitration Eligible Players.

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