Austin Riley is really, really good at hitting baseballs a long way. It’s why the Braves took him 41st overall in 2015 (thank you Craig Kimbrel and BJ Upton). A big strong kid from Mississippi, the Braves convinced Austin to forego a commitment to Mississippi State with a slightly overslot deal of 1.6 million. Now considering the allotment for the 41st pick was $1,506,400, 1.6 doesn’t seem like that much extra. Riley wasn’t a huge reach, as he was fairly highly thought, but what you may not know is that Atlanta was one of very few teams that actually viewed Riley as a hitter. That’s right. The kid averaging a homer every other game was almost universally panned as a future pitcher, due in large part to a low to mid 90’s fastball and a lot of baby fat. So how did we get to this point?
Before hitting 9 homers in his 1st 18 games, before getting off to the 2nd greatest start to a career in Atlanta history (never forget what Jeff Francoeur did in July of 2005), Riley was just a big kid with mammoth power and a lot of questions. He wasn’t a good defender at 3rd, despite playing SS for his high school team, and there were legitimate worries about his ability to make consistent contact. High velocity in particular tended to give Austin fits early in his development. Fast forward to the present and it’s fair to say those concerns are no longer valid.
Looking at Riley’s season line from a year ago, one could be forgiven for harboring doubts about Riley’s hit tool. He struck out at a nearly 30% clip, not a death knell in today’s game but certainly not a number to inspire confidence. Spring Training did little to alleviate those concerns, with Riley striking out seemingly every at bat. Enter one seemingly small adjustment: hand placement.
If you go back and look at Riley’s batting stance a season ago, you’ll notice he carries his hands high and tight, close by the ear flap on his helmet. This created a slight bat wrap, the head of his bat pointing slightly to the pitcher. Simply speaking, this made his swing slower, making it much more difficult for him to catch up to the high velocity common in today’s game. It wouldn’t have ruined him as a prospect, but continuing as he was would’ve resulted in Mark Reynolds type numbers: lots of homers, lots of strikeouts, and a low average. At the start of the season in Gwinnett, it looked like more of the same for Austin. A few weeks later, however, you could start to see a change in Riley’s swing.
He lowered his hands a bit, moving them away from his head and lining them up more with his neck. This eliminated the bat wrap, and put his hands more in line with his load. It’s a small change, but it carries large ramifications. Any extra time is helpful when you’re talking about making a decision in 3/10ths of a second. Without that extra motion of bringing his hands down and back, Riley has been able to limit his biggest weakness as a hitter. This allowed him to cut his strikeout rate by a staggering 10% in AAA. More contact for Riley equals more home runs. More importantly, it creates a far more valuable prospect.
For Atlanta, Riley’s emergence has been a God send. His injection into the lineup has transformed this team into an offense to be feared. He’s provided a whole new dynamic for opposing pitchers to navigate. With him in the lineup, there are very few places that can’t make pitchers pay. And while these early numbers aren’t sustainable, his talent with the bat can’t be overstated. Even as the power numbers regress, his walk rates should rise quite a bit. Simply stated, Austin Riley is, and will remain, and integral part of Atlanta’s postseason hopes.
As impressive as the offense is though, it’s the other strides that have made this rise to prominence possible. When drafted, Riley was soft around the middle and seemed destined for 1st. He’s worked extremely hard at molding his body and turning the baby fat into muscle. Thanks to this, he’s become a much better athlete than originally thought. While he’s never going to be Billy Hamilton, Riley is no longer a detriment on the basepaths.
Most impressive of all though, are the defensive improvements. There are no longer any questions about Riley’s ability to stay at 3rd. His arm has always been a plus, but now he has the lateral agility needed to be an above average defender as well. That athleticism has already served him well in left field, despite no experience before this season. He’s not going to win any awards out there, but he’s not going to hurt us either.
So what does all this mean long term? It means the Braves have yet another high impact piece on their hands. It means the Braves have yet another potential rookie of the year. They’ve got another piece of the championship puzzle. And it means they’ve given fans yet another young stud to rally around. And it means that these Braves aren’t going anywhere any time soon.