Braves: Don’t look now, but Austin Riley has become one of the most reliable bats

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I always find the rash conclusions fans come to after such tiny stretches borderline hilarious. Austin Riley has been touted as the Braves weakest link for quite some time, and I would say deservedly so, given how he played to end 2019 and in 2020. However, this is still a player that was once the top prospect in the organization that just turned 24-years-old and entered the season with less than an entire season’s worth of games under his belt. There is plenty of reason to believe that a breakout could come at any moment, but more often than not, fans don’t think rationally, and because of that, they were ready to trade Austin Riley for a pile of dirty laundry and a broken vending machine a few weeks ago. Now, he’s the hottest bat on the team and could be a critical piece to turning this season around.

Over the last two weeks (13 games), Riley has been undoubtedly the Braves’ best player — even better than Ronald Acuna, who would probably be the NL MVP if the season ended today. Riley has reached base at a nearly .600 clip over that stretch, hitting .488 with three homers and a couple of doubles — good for a 1.344 OPS. His average for the season now sits at .329 with a .431 OBP and .890 OPS. This is a player that is clearly getting a better feel for the strike zone and how pitchers are trying to attack him, and the adjustments are working, leading to a walk rate of nearly 11%, which is up from 7.4% last season and 5.4% in 2019.

Riley’s also been much better defensively this season. After posting -0.9 dWAR during the 2020 shortened campaign, he is boasting a much-improved 0.1 dWAR this season, leading to a 1.1 WAR overall, which is second among all position players, behind only Ronald Acuna, who has already accumulated 1.7 WAR.

Riley isn’t going to stay this hot forever. I don’t ever think he will be a guy who hits over .300 with a .400 OBP over the course of an entire 162-game season. However, in the same breathe, I think he can hit for much more power than he has so far this season, and there are enough promising signs to suggest Riley is becoming a well-above-replacement-level player, which he hasn’t been so far in his career. I’m not ready to stamp “third baseman of the foreseeable future” on his forehead just yet, but I am very excited to see if he can keep this up and what the Braves offense can do with a productive Austin Riley in the middle of the order.

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