Even for a guy who stood by his side while he struggled over the last couple of seasons, Austin Riley‘s 2021 campaign has been absolutely jaw-dropping. Everyone knew he had the power to slug 30-40 home runs over a full season. Some scouts even though he had 50 home run potential when he was coming up through the minors. However, nobody — at least that I’ve found — believed he was going to be a player that could hit .300. Well… here we are.
It’s September 23rd, the Braves have about ten games left on their schedule, and Austin Riley is hitting .301 with 32 homers and a .902 OPS — equating to 5.4 bWAR. That ranks him sixth in the National League, and he’s just 0.1 bWAR behind Bryce Harper, who many believe is the favorite to take home the NL MVP.
When a beacon of hope was needed, Austin Riley provided it for the Braves, making his MVP case even more tantalizing. On July 10th, Ronald Acuna tore his ACL. The Braves were already trailing by several games in the NL East, and it started to feel like a fourth consecutive division title just wasn’t in the cards. It would have been easy for the team to lay down and wave the white flag, but they didn’t, and a surging Austin Riley is the primary reason for that.
Since that melancholy afternoon, the Braves third baseman has put the team on his back and carried the team to a two-game division lead over the Phillies with just three series remaining. Riley has a .318 batting average over that 63-game stretch with 18 homers, resulting in a .982 OPS — all while playing more than serviceable defense at the hot corner. He has undoubtedly been the MVP of a team that has several potential candidates, including last year’s NL MVP, Freddie Freeman.
However, if Braves fans are being honest with themselves, Riley’s not going to win the award this year. He’s not the most deserving, and that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t take anything away from the stellar campaign he’s put together, and if the Braves end up winning the NL East, I’m sure he’ll have no problem going to sleep at night.
Juan Soto is having one of the best seasons nobody is talking about. If voters genuinely evaluate who has been the most outstanding player in the National League this year, he should take home the award. Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works.
Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis are media darlings, and they are both putting up spectacular numbers on teams that have been much more competitive this season. Although the Padres and Phillies may miss the playoffs, should they really be rewarded for just being “competitive?” I don’t think so.
In fact, Riley might end up being the player with the highest bWAR in the National League playoffs this season. As things currently stand, Trea Turner is the only player on a playoff team with a higher bWAR than Riley (5.5 to 5.4). With the way Riley has been going of late, he could easily pass Turner over the final two weeks of the season. The Braves will need him to as well, as they have a series with the Phillies coming up next week that will likely determine the NL East.
Regardless, whatever Riley does to end the season won’t be enough to earn him the NL MVP, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be celebrated. We can always remember 2021 as the Austin Riley breakout year, and for some reason, I feel like that might mean something pretty special a decade down the road.