Austin Riley still has plenty to prove. But while reducing his strikeout rate and becoming less susceptible to sliders last year, he gained confidence in his ability to be a valuable piece within the Braves' lineup for many years to come.
“I definitely feel good about some of the steps I took last year,” Riley said Thursday from North Port, Fla. “I look forward to putting it all together this year.”
Exactly what the Braves have in Riley might be learned as he attempts to entrench himself as the club’s third baseman of the future. Can he once again be the guy who impressed by homering 14 times (once every 11.5 at-bats) and producing a .930 OPS through his first 42 career games in 2019.
Or is he more like the guy who has totaled just 12 homers (one every 25.1 at-bats) while producing a .633 OPS over the 89 games that have followed?
“I thought he handled himself and competed very well last year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I thought he made some good adjustments. This is a tough league. The thing that is encouraging about Austin is all the way through, since he’s been a pro, he’s made adjustments and figured things out. He’s gotten better every year.”
Riley highlighted his 2020 season by hitting the go-ahead home run in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. But he produced several other encouraging moments while hitting .239 with eight home runs (23.5 AB/HR) and a .716 OPS over 51 regular-season games.
There’s nothing overly impressive about those statistics. Riley seemed to be moving in the right direction when he hit five homers (15.6 AB/HR) and constructed a .910 OPS over a 21-game stretch from Aug. 10-Sept. 4. But his numbers suffered as a right quad strain plagued him over the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
To fully appreciate what Riley did last year, it’s best to remember that 36.4 percent of his plate appearances ended with a strikeout in 2019. When he was surging through the first 42 games of his career, he was striking out 32.2 percent of the time. That rate rose to 42.3 percent as he produced a meager .495 OPS over his final 123 plate appearances.
Riley’s strikeout rate improved to a much more encouraging 23.8 percent last year. He also made contact with 72.4 percent of his swings, compared to just 63.4 percent in 2019.
As Riley progressed through the 2019 season, pitchers took advantage of his struggles against the slider. He hit just .140 (8-for-57) with three homers against the pitch. He also whiffed on 29.6 percent (81 of 274) of the sliders he saw. His whiff rate jumped to 50.3 percent (81 of 161) when accounting only for when he swung against a slider.
Riley improved to a .275 clip with two homers against sliders in 2020. He lowered his whiff rate to 22 percent (42 of 191) against sliders and to 43.8 percent when he swung against them. Both of these metrics represented the growth the young third baseman was seeking last year.
“Physically, he looks really good,” Snitker said. “Just watching the coach’s [batting practice], his swing is working real well. Talking to him and all, he’s in a good place right now.”