Nobody would have predicted it before the season, and even fewer people would have uttered such a phrase after the first few weeks of April, but Austin Riley has become a legitimate MVP candidate. The slugging third baseman has accrued 4.5 bWAR this season, thanks to a .304 batting average and .915 OPS, and those numbers are only getting better as the season progresses.
Since April 18th, Riley has recorded an even more impressive .317 average and .963 OPS, including all 28 of his home runs. That’s right, the latest slugging third baseman for the Braves didn’t even have a homer through the first three weeks of the season, and now we’re talking about him as an MVP candidate. If that’s not enough for MVP voters, the way Riley has taken off over the second half of the season when the Braves needed him most just might do the trick.
In the second half, Riley’s already racked up 14 bombs in just 40 games while hitting to the tune of a .359 average and 1.091 OPS. Those are eerily similar numbers to the ones Chipper Jones put up to begin the second half of his 1999 NL MVP campaign.
First 40 games after the All-Star break
2021 Austin Riley – .359 BA 14 HR 1.091 OPS
1999 Chipper Jones (MVP season) – .340, 12 HR, 1.169 OPS
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) August 30, 2021
As of now, there are still a few candidates that are deservingly ahead of him in the race. Nobody has been hotter than Bryce Harper over the last few months, as he leads all the majors in OPS. Fernando Tatis is right behind him as he attempts to keep the San Diego Padres in the playoff race. Max Muncy, Jesse Winker, and Nick Castellanos are also deserving candidates to this point, but I wouldn’t count Austin Riley completely out of it. The MVP award oftentimes comes down to the story, and few could match Riley’s.
Just over a month ago, the Braves were wondering whether they would be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. They had just lost their primary MVP candidate, Ronald Acuña, to a torn ACL, and one of the keys to their pitching staff, Ian Anderson, was also placed on the IL. Things looked bleak, but because in large part of Riley’s performance, the Braves haven’t just stayed afloat, they’ve taken complete control of the NL East.
Providing the Braves can hang onto the division and Riley can stay hot, I think there’s a real chance Atlanta could end up being home to the last two NL MVPs. It will likely take some struggles from Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis to allow Riley to catch up, but crazier things have happened. Given neither Harper nor Tatis is currently in the playoff mix, the nod could go to Riley if the race tightens up down the stretch.