ATLANTA -- When the Braves returned from their 10-game West Coast road trip last week, Chipper Jones proudly approached Austin Riley and congratulated the young third baseman on securing his first 30-homer, 100-RBI season.
“I just walked up to him down in the tunnel and said, ‘Man, I heard you did something no third baseman has done around here for quite some time,’” Jones said. “I just wanted to congratulate him. I’m proud of him.”
During the first full season of his big league career, Riley distanced himself from past struggles and became a legitimate National League MVP Award candidate. He stands as a primary reason why the Braves will confidently enter their NL Division Series against the Brewers.
“I’m really proud of him, very much so,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You love that kid. Just to see where he has come from and how he has hung in there and how he has given himself a chance is great. You look at his numbers this year; he’s been really good, big time.”
Riley finished this season hitting .303 with 33 homers, 107 RBIs and a .898 OPS. Here are some of the 24-year-old third baseman’s accomplishments:
• Joined Eddie Mathews, Bob Horner and Jones as the only third basemen in franchise history 24 years old or younger to hit 30 homers in a season.
• Joined Mathews and Jones as the only Braves third basemen 24 years old or younger to produce a 30-homer, 100-RBI season.
• Also joined Mathews and Jones as the only Braves third basemen 24 years old or younger to hit .300 during a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. The only non-third basemen to deliver those numbers with the same age parameters in franchise history are Wally Berger, Hank Aaron and Andruw Jones.
• Riley and Ozzie Albies became just the fifth set of teammates in AL/NL history 24 years old or younger to simultaneously construct a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. The others were Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder (2008 Brewers), Mark Teixeira/Hank Blalock (2004 Rangers), Mark McGwire/Jose Canseco (1987 A’s) and Don Hurst/Chuck Klein (1929 Phillies).
“I knew he could do it from a 30-homer, 100-RBI standpoint,” Jones said. “He’s impressed us with his batting average still above .300. That’s pretty cool.”
Riley showed his power potential when he homered 14 times through his first 161 at-bats after making his MLB debut on May 15, 2019. He proceeded to hit just four homers and produce a .495 OPS while striking out in 42.3 percent of his remaining plate appearances that season.
While Riley hit .239 with a .716 OPS in 2020, his strikeout rate dropped to 23.8 percent and he was far less susceptible to sliders and other pitches outside the zone. He swung and missed at a 20.5 percent clip in 2019, while doing so at just a 13.1 percent rate this year. Riley swung at 41.3 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone in 2019, as opposed to chasing just 34.6 percent this year.
Riley struggled through the first couple weeks of the 2021 season and then got on a roll that he maintained for more than five months. The 4.5 fWAR he produced going back to April 18 ranked ninth among all NL players and one spot ahead of '20 NL MVP Award winner, Freddie Freeman, who constructed a 4.2 fWAR during the same stretch.
“Being that tough of an out and being able to do damage while driving in big runs and get big base hits, that’s what we’re shooting for,” Jones said. “I’m a proud papa.”