Braves: Austin Riley looks primed for his first “normal” season 

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With the Braves seemingly uninterested in upgrading at third base — which, depending on your opinion of the current depth chart, might be acceptable — 23-year-old Austin Riley must continue building on the strides he made in 2020. 

I’ve admittedly been skeptical about Riley remaining an everyday regular for Atlanta. Given the options available at the start of the current offseason, it seemed like a prime opportunity to reinforce the third base position this winter. However, regardless of my doubts concerning Riley, I’d be just plain lying if I said he didn’t improve at the plate last season. 

If there’s one aspect of Riley’s game that’s generally agreed upon is that the Georgia native can go through some rather extreme cycles with the bat. Just look at his coming-out party in 2019, when Riley came out swinging and posted an incredible 186 wRC+ in his first 15 games to end the month of May. Of course, producing at an 86% rate above league average on offense while striking out over 30% of the time is quite unsustainable; therefore, once pitchers started figuring out Riley’s MO (swing… A LOT), the ridiculous numbers quickly vanished.

Riley hit for just a 54 wRC+ in June and July combined, followed by another hot streak that resulted in a 180 wRC+ in August, eventually ending 2019 with a stinker in September that featured a horrible 12 wRC+. The good times sure were good, but unfortunately, that’s a helluva roller coaster ride at the plate and certainly not the ideal way to make a living as a hitter in the majors.

And though Riley had an almost identical 15-game hot stretch in August/September of 2020 (granted, not quite as impressive as his month of May the year before), his peripherals were much more sustainable, which in turn, featured less of a “decline” once the raking finally subsided. A lot of that can probably be attributed to Riley’s swing overhaul last winter, when he spent December of 2019 in Dallas working with Atlanta’s minor league hitting coordinator, Mike Brumley. In Texas, the two worked on balancing Riley at the plate, with the hopes of remedying his habit of jumping at pitches and sliding his feet. That swing change progressed into the summer as well, as veteran catcher Brian McCann worked with Riley to keep his weight more evenly distributed. According to the Braves third baseman last February, he felt the adjustments worked:

“Past springs, I feel like I’ve come in searching for something and trying to figure out my swing with that slide or something with my elbow. Now, I can work on my approach and work on seeing that strike or ball. That allows me to make that adjustment quicker to seeing live pitching.”


Obviously, it’s a smaller sample to go by (91 fewer PA relative to 2019), but Riley’s overall numbers last season illustrated that those changes did, in fact, pay off. In 29 fewer games in 2020, Riley cut his strikeout rate by almost 13% (36.4 to 23.8) and saw an almost 2.5% jump in his walk rate (5.4 to 7.8). Although perhaps the most obvious improvement that stemmed from his ability to make quicker adjustments at the plate in 2020 was his performance against breaking balls, especially the curve.

Last year Riley posted a wRC+ of 137 and 188 against sliders and curveballs, respectively, compared to the 56 and 91 versus the same two pitches two years ago. He has always hit the fastball rather well (107 wRC+ in his career against the pitch). Still, it appears that opposing pitchers are no longer able to simply throw junk to get by Riley, which should give him a much higher floor performance-wise and more formidable rate-stats altogether.

Now headed into year three with Atlanta, though with still less than a full season worth of plate appearances in the majors, the 2021 season could be a huge campaign for Riley — especially since all indicators point to him being given the lion’s share of playing time at the hot corner.

And while he was thrown to the big league fire a bit quicker, infield teammate Dansby Swanson could become somewhat of a hopeful career-arc for Riley. Dansby had a strong start to his major league career when he debuted during the 2016 season, posting a 107 wRC+ in his first 38 games with the Braves, but it took the former first-overall pick another couple of seasons to really find his way. Swanson perhaps benefited from some small sample-sizes last year, but he finished 2020 with career-bests in practically every statistical category, tallying nearly 2 fWAR in just 60 games.

Over at FanGraphs, the site’s three major projections differ drastically when it comes to Riley this coming season. ZiPS sees him scuffling a bit in 2021, or perhaps even regressing some, though projecting the third baseman to basically match his wRC+ from last year. However, Steamer and Depth Charts paint a picture that I believe most of Braves Country would be thrilled with.

  • ZiPS: .239 AVG, 90 wRC+, 26 HR, 0.8 WAR
  • Steamer: .258 AVG, 104 wRC+, 29 HR, 1.9 WAR
  • Depth Charts: .248 AVG, 97 wRC+, 31 HR, 1.5 WAR

Settling in as a .250 hitter with 30-HR power should go down as a success for Atlanta, especially in the event that, like Swanson, Riley can even one day improve with the glove — for 2-WAR-type homegrown players with plenty of team-control don’t exactly grow on trees. Many of us may feel differently regarding where Riley’s headed as a major leaguer, as does the industry’s projection systems. In the end, no one ever knows exactly how these players will pan out. Regardless though, judging by the Braves slow winter thus far, it looks like we are all about to find out this season. 

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