Braves: It’s past time to start talking about Austin Riley as a superstar

Braves division race Austin Riley

Like most young players, the beginning of Austin Riley‘s career has been a tale of two stories. He made his MLB debut in 2019 and was scorching hot but quickly fizzled out, and the result was him being left off the postseason roster entirely. 2020 was more of the same; it was a shortened season in which Riley was the team’s starting third baseman, but again, he proved to be a below-average offensive player.

Of course, then everything changed. Riley was the single most important piece to last year’s World Series squad, and he was deserving of MVP consideration. He ended up finishing seventh in the voting after hitting .300 to go along with 33 homers; he even improved defensively at the hot corner. Finally, the once top prospect of the organization had arrived, but the next question would be if he could sustain that success year after year or if he would regress back to the mean.

Like his first two years in the league, Riley’s 2022 campaign has been a tale of two different stories. Through the first three weeks, he looked like the MVP version of himself, but a mega-slump followed in which he hit just .200 over 25 games, leading to a 71-point drop in his batting average.

It was worrisome, and it was fair for fans to wonder exactly which Austin Riley the Braves were going to be getting in 2022 and beyond. However, the last two weeks should have eased concerns considerably. Riley has six homers over that stretch to go along with a .373 batting average. His average for the season is now up to .265 to go along with a team-leading 14 homers and .866 OPS, which is just 32 points below where he finished 2021.

Those aren’t MVP-caliber numbers, but he’s well on his way to an All-Star appearance, and if he continues at this rate, it won’t be long before he’s in the MVP conversations once again. So, the question is — what exactly should we expect from Riley moving forward. Is it who he was in his first two seasons? Is it a perennial MVP candidate? Or is it somewhere in the middle?

As a Braves fan, it’s impossible for me not to be biased, but I’m borderline certain the player that will be manning third base in Atlanta for the foreseeable future will be a perennial All-Star and mentioned in several MVP conversations. He might even win one; he’s that good. Even when he was slumping for the majority of May, he never looked lost at the plate or out of at-bats. Things just weren’t quite clicking. Now that they are, nobody seems to be able to stop him.

His Baseball Savant page should also give Braves fans confidence:

  • 97th percentile Avg Exit Velocity
  • 97th percentile Max Exit Velocity
  • 98th percentile HardHit%
  • 95th percentile xwOBA
  • 98th percentile xSLG
  • 97th percentile Barrel %
  • 86th percentile xBA

Just about everything suggests the Riley we saw last season is back again in 2022, and he might be even better. Remember, he’s still just 25-years-old. Hitting .373 for the remainder of the season isn’t sustainable, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he flirted with .300, and 40 homers is definitely within striking distance. If that happens, who knows? Perhaps we won’t have to wait much longer for the next Braves player to be crowned MVP of the National League.

Photo: Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire

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