Riley's winding path from prep ace to slugger

October 28th, 2021

Sometimes scouts learn from their mistakes. And it was a miss Brian Bridges had as an area scout years prior that led to him drafting Austin Riley, now the Braves’ cleanup hitter during the World Series, in 2015.

Simply taking a player in the MLB Draft isn’t newsworthy in and of itself, even when he goes No. 41 overall in the supplemental first round. But taking a player as a hitter, when the vast majority of teams viewed him as a pitcher, in your first year as a scouting director? That’s worth digging into.

While all Drafts are stand-alones, there’s no question that reports written and decisions made in the past inform decisions made in the present and in the future. Back in 2005, Bridges was an area scout in Georgia for the then-Florida Marlins, when he saw a young pitcher from Lee County High School. The entire industry saw him as a strike-throwing right-hander and Bridges held the same opinion, even though he also thought he was the best hitter in the area.

It was this player who was sent up to pinch-hit with the bases loaded in the Georgia vs. Florida game in the East Coast Pro Showcase during the summer of '04, coming through with a bases-clearing double. But because he and all scouts were focused on this high schooler on the mound, Bridges didn’t really consider his potential in the batter’s box.

The player's name? Buster Posey, who went on to Florida State and became the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 MLB Draft before embarking on a Hall of Fame-caliber career at and behind the plate with the Giants.

So when Bridges saw Riley -- then a prep two-way player from Mississippi -- a decade later, and wanted to go against the conventional wisdom and potentially take him as a hitter, Bridges decided he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity when he saw Riley in the spring of 2015 at USA Baseball’s National High School Invitational.

“I already screwed up with Buster Posey in high school,” said Bridges, now a national cross-checker with the Giants. “I thought he was the best hitter and didn’t scout him as a hitter. I’m going to ask the kid the question. I’m going to get an answer.”

The question was short and sweet: Hitter or pitcher? Bridges sidled up to Riley as he was heading to batting practice on a backfield at USA Baseball’s complex.

The response was just as simple: Hitter.

“I said, 'Thank you,' and walked off,” Bridges said. “I never asked Buster that. The kid is convicted in the bat, we’re convicted in the kid.”

Scouting Riley started the previous summer

The Braves’ decision to take Riley didn’t stem from that simple 20-second exchange, obviously. Bridges’ fondness of Riley’s power potential began the previous summer. Riley really started putting himself on the map with most teams by throwing 94-96 mph fastballs with an above-average breaking ball at Perfect Game’s National Showcase.

Bridges liked that part of his game enough to watch him pitch for the Dulins Dodgers at the East Cobb Tournament later in the summer. Riley was mid-90s again, but it was later in the game, when Bridges moved from behind home plate to find some shade, that he saw an at-bat that might have changed the trajectory of Riley’s career.

“He gets behind in the count, battles back, then hits one over the lights into the second parking lot,” Bridges said. “And I said, ‘Wait a minute. I know he’s 94-96 [mph], but there aren’t that many amateur players who can hit a ball like that. We have something different here.’ The late Clay Daniel told me when you see a kid hit a ball really far, there aren’t that many who can do it.”

Other Braves scouts get on the Riley train

Bridges kept his belief in drafting Riley as a hitter largely to himself until the spring. At the start of the 2015 high school season, he told Roy Clark -- the former Braves scouting director who came back as a senior advisor that year -- and Chris Lionetti -- a scouting assistant who now works for USA Baseball -- to go and scout Riley at the LaGrange Tournament. Bridges didn't mention to either of them that he already liked Riley as a hitter, simply asking them to scout everything Riley did.

“He was facing Jake Higginbotham,” Clark recalled, remembering that Higginbotham was a talented left-handed pitcher who would go on to Clemson before he joined the Braves' organization. “[Riley's] first at-bat, he was all over it. He was on him every pitch, sort of like Eddie Rosario was against Walker Buehler when he hit that home run in the NLCS. We started bearing down on him as a hitter then.”

Bridges remembers the conversation vividly.

“Roy calls me and says, ‘I saw him pitch, I don’t know, he was 91-93 mph, spun a breaking ball, but …,’” Bridges said. “I cut him off: 'You don’t have to say another word. I’m all-in on him as a hitter.'”

That made it three on the staff who liked him as an infielder and not as a pitcher, but Bridges wanted more consensus. National cross-checker Sean Rooney checked Riley out and saw him go deep on a backfield in that NHSI tournament, one of the few times Bridges got nervous that other teams would turn their sights to Riley as a hitter because, as he put it, “that tournament gets guys famous.”

Luckily for the Braves, that didn’t happen. Once Bridges knew Riley wanted to hit, he didn’t need too much more convincing. Atlanta probably had someone at all of DeSoto Central's remaining games for the rest of the year. To keep things on the down low, as scouts are wont to do, they made sure area scout Donny Thomas turned in a report on him as a pitcher.

Even with some certainty, Bridges wasn’t afraid to get more opinions. Greg Walker had recently left the big league club as its hitting coach and had moved into more of an advisory role. It was supposed to be more on the player development side, but when Walker let it be known he’d be willing to check out some amateur hitters if it would be helpful, Bridges didn’t waste any time sending Walker to Mississippi.

“What was not to like?” said Walker, who is still with the Braves in a hitting advisory role. "The swing wasn’t perfect, but it was close. There are always tweaks that take place during the journey. I liked him. They found him, they identified it. I just agreed with them.”

Riley was one of the first couple of amateur players Walker had ever seen. He didn’t know that most teams liked Riley as a pitcher or that the track record of high school hitters from Mississippi is not extensive. (Charlie Hayes has the highest bWAR of any prep hitter who signed out of high school in the state at 10.52; Riley’s 6.1 bWAR in 2021 erased his negative WAR entering the year and his 5.5 career mark already puts him fourth on that list.)

“I didn’t know anything about amateur scouting at that point,” Walker said. “I didn’t realize how gutsy a pick it was at the time. Looking back, it was a real gutsy call. Our phones started lighting up when we announced him at third. Most scouts now like to say they liked him as a hitter, too. Some did, but they didn’t take him.”

“He meant a lot to me,” Bridges said of Walker’s opinion. “He was the guy we’d send in to see the better hitters. Now we have five guys in.”

Throwing away the fear of being discovered, Bridges brought an army of scouts to see Riley’s last game, a playoff contest for DeSoto. Clark, Rooney, Lionetti and Deron Rombach -- another national scout for the Braves -- all headed to Mississippi. Leaving no stone unturned, Bridges chatted with Riley’s parents before the game.

“I asked them, ‘How much does he really want to play?’” Bridges said. “His mom said, ‘He will do anything, including catch, to play in the big leagues.’”

That was music to Bridges’ ears and Riley’s home run and average run time in the game was icing. So was a ridiculous private workout in Atlanta where, Walker says, “he made the ballpark look small.”

Bridges knew he wanted to take Riley with their supplemental first-round pick at No. 41. He knew of only a small handful of teams -- the Royals, Phillies, Brewers, Nationals -- who preferred him as a hitter and felt fairly confident they weren’t on him as early.

“We were lucky to get him where we got him in the Draft,” said Clark, now a part-time scout with the Royals. “One of the things we had to do was persuade him not to go to any other pre-Draft workouts. We spent so much time and effort in scouting him.

"‘We like you, we want to draft you to be with your hometown [club], you don’t need to go to any other places,'" said Clark. “I’m still surprised not too many guys were on him as a hitter. You didn’t hear from our organization any of the questions about him, the swing and miss, about his size -- we were all in.”

Path to the big leagues starts slowly

By the time Riley signed and got his pro career started, he had been off for about six weeks. So there was considerable rust when he made his debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and he kicked things off by going hitless in his first 22 plate appearances. Veteran baseball people know things can take time, but there was a little tension -- both externally and internally -- when the infielder started off so slowly.

“I go to [Perfect Game] national that summer and a scout from another team said, ‘You took Riley as a hitter, that’s never going to work. He’s a pitcher,” Bridges said. “I’m thinking, ‘Can’t we give him a chance?’”

Bridges was also hearing from higher-ups in the front office, getting calls daily asking what was going on with Riley. Clark recalls one executive saying he was a pitcher with slider bat speed.

“We wholeheartedly disagreed, and the rest has taken care of itself,” Clark said.

Bridges admits to there being a little panic. He once again called on Walker to help, sending the hitting guru down to Florida to work with Riley.

“Greg calls me on his way home and says, ‘Austin’s about to go off. And when he starts, he’s not going to stop,’” Bridges said.

“It was fairly obvious he hadn’t been playing in a few weeks,” Walker said. “I still felt he was the same guy. I told Bridge he had nothing to worry about. The whole organization fell in love with him immediately. There were scuffles along the way, but that’s why they play the Minor League games.”

Riley did indeed go off after that. He hit .300 with seven homers in 25 games after that start, earning a promotion up to the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where he promptly posted a 1.028 OPS over 30 games to end his summer. He more or less hit everywhere he went en route to making his big league debut at 22 years old in 2019. It’s taken him a couple of years to find his footing in Atlanta, but the MVP-type numbers he put up in '21 might just be the tip of the iceberg.

“I believe in my heart most of the stars of the game are high school [draftees],” Bridges said. “You’re never going to sign a star if you don’t shoot for the moon. It’s a volatile job with a lot of turnover, but you want to be able to walk away and say, ‘You know what? We shot for the moon and it paid off.’ Or, ‘I shot for the moon and it didn’t pay off, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.’ I wouldn’t have done it any other way, and neither would anyone else on our staff.”