Braves: This is a much more sustainable Austin Riley 

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On May 15th of last season, the day finally came for Austin Riley — his MLB debut. And what followed after that were some of the most exciting moments of the Braves’ 2019 campaign. The 22-year-old went absolutely nuts, and thanks to a .299 AVG and 15 homers in his first 162 plate appearances in Triple-A Gwinnett, Riley had enough momentum to quickly make a name for himself in the big leagues.

From May 15th to June 12th — his first 26 games in the majors — Riley slugged ten home runs for the big league Braves and slashed a healthy .292/.336/.623 (while providing several big hits, often with his proud parents in the stands). 

Even though Freddie Freeman was The Franchise Player and Cristian Pache was The Prospect, Riley was certainly trending towards becoming a fan favorite.

But there was an issue with Riley’s remarkable start in 2019: he was achieving those numbers in an absolutely unsustainable way. 

During those first 26 games (106 AB) of his big league career with the Braves, Riley had a whopping 36 strikeouts and just four walks — good for a 34% K rate and 3.7% walk rate. His proneness to punchouts and his inability to draw walks made it quite clear that it was just a matter of time before things began to even out. And we knew whenever that time came… it could very well get ugly.

Sure enough, Riley concluded his debut season with a .480 OPS in July — resulting in just two games with the Braves in August — and then managed a .454 OPS in September/October to end the year. Just as quick as he became a superstar, Riley turned into a dud. 

 

More stability in 2020

The 2020 season has been a little different, and it hasn’t featured quite as many special memories for the now 23-year-old. Unlike in 2019, Riley’s first 26 games this year weren’t filled with a bunch of late-inning homers and timely hits, but instead a .216 AVG and K rate in the low 30s. And things got terrible in mid-August when over a six-game stretch (from Aug. 12-18), Riley went just 3 for 20 (.150 AVG) with no extra-base hits and three RBI. However, a week of poor hitting is much better than two or three months’ worth, and much like shortstop Dansby Swanson has learned to do in 2020, Riley seems a lot more capable of bouncing back when things go wrong at the plate.

And that short memory, or newly-acquired ability to pick himself up after a bad performance, has been crucial. During a shortened season in which a single game is much more significant than in previous years, there was a feeling — when things began to go downhill last month — that perhaps Riley could lose his job as a starter. Although, fortunately for him, teammate Johan Camargo hasn’t been any better at the plate (he’s currently hitting just .205 with four HRs), so the Braves were forced to give Riley a long leash. 

And as we’ve seen, the Braves’ patience with Riley has certainly paid off.

Since his game after the stint mentioned above (August 21st), Riley has slashed .372/.400/.721 with three homers, four doubles, and ten RBI. Including his surprise triple this past Sunday against the Red Sox, that’s eight extra-base hits in ten games, hence the healthy .700+ SLG%. 

Best of all, Riley’s doing all of this without striking out 40% of the time. In fact, his K rate sits at a much more respectable 28.2% right now, and his 6% walk rate is at least above 2019’s. Also, these improvements regarding strikeouts have allowed him to maintain a decent AVG (.248) so far through his first 31 games of 2020 and a near MLB average offensive profile overall (98 wRC+). Now with 111 career games in the majors under his belt over these last two seasons, hopefully, this is a sign that Riley can continue to be more consistent at the plate long term.

Because the truth is he may never be a .300 hitter in the majors, and his K rate will probably always hold him back a bit, but Riley seems to be evolving into the .250 AVG / 30 HR player the Braves drafted 41st-overall back in 2015. No matter how great he winds up being, though, Riley is putting up solid numbers in a more sustainable fashion. Because of that, the Braves should enjoy his production all season and hopefully on into the playoffs. 

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