“If you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working?”
Austin Riley came up last year as a 22-year-old. During his first few weeks of play, it was the best of times showered in gold. In his first 18 games, Riley hit 9 HRs with 25 RBIs and a .324/.368/.732 slash line. The world was his oyster (or plant-based soy oyster substitute if you’re a vegan). It looked like he was a world-beater. But a problem simmered under the surface. A 30% K-rate and 5% walk-rate to go along with a .378 BABIP well above his minor league career mark of .293. He always had some swing and miss in his game, but in the minors, it was a serviceable 25.3% that improved over time.
The hurdles of the known and the unknown are the everpresent challenges for rookies that reach the Show. Adjustments are the name of the game. You anti up your hand, then the league calls it. Now it’s back to you to raise it. That’s where we find our hero now, holding the cards in need of a response. You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig? You are going to show me a table, aren’t you? Yes, I am.
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Can you tell which one of these is Austin Riley? Yes. They both are. Player A is Riley when he was called up May 15 through June 23 (The Good). Player B is from 6/24 through the end of the season (The Bad). Now I’m sure you are thinking, why did I choose that split. Maybe. Great question! Other than it being a rough midpoint in his ~300 PAs, it also represents the beginning of a 4 game series in Chicago in which he had his first 3 game stretch without a hit. As they say when the coat comes off in the freezing cold during a blizzard: he got exposed. So what changed? How did he go from Clinton Eastwood to Lee Van Cleef?
|A||vs Fastball||vs Sinker||vs Change||vs Slider||vs Curve|
So up until the Cubs series, he was crushing the hard stuff. As for breaking balls, he handled the curve but had trouble with sliders. And that’s really the ugly truth here. When the league learned he had trouble with sliders, they exploited it.
|B||vs Fastball||vs Sinker||vs Change||vs Slider||vs Curve|
With him watching out more for the sliders, it began affecting his responsiveness to all other pitches. What used to be his bread and butter, crushing fastballs, was slipping away. Watching for sliders led better contact when he did connect, even though he still whiffed a lot. But now he was late on the fastball and getting eaten up by both. So he began pressing, and his eagerness to produce and eagerness to conquer the slider led more pressing and more chasing, failing to identify balls out of the zone as seen here and worsening here.
So what makes him a sleeper for 2020 and this a sleeper post rather than an obituary?
I’m glad you asked RIV! Let’s go back and see how he earned his call-up from AAA. What you didn’t know is that Riley had two tours at the level: 2018 and the first of 2019 that he impressed the team enough to get the call:
Ah-ha! Notice how he dropped his K-rate by nearly 10% and raised his walk-rate 2% while boosting his SLG to over 600. Riley adjusted to the level after having an offseason to work on his flaws and returned to crush the ball. Prior to his promotion, he hit 15 HRs in 44 games after playing 75 games in 2018 during his first taste of AAA. Hey, how many games did he play in MLB last year? 80. Hmmm, that’s almost the same as AAA the first time, which he then had an offseason to train and correct mistakes for the next season. Man, nothing gets by you RIV. Heyyyyy.
Which brings us to this year. What we learned is that last year he wasn’t keeping his feet and center of gravity balanced. This offseason he’s been working with Braves minor league hitting coordinator Mike Brumley to find the right balance. They discovered that he was putting too much weight on his back toes, which then led to him hopping forward and sliding his feet as he was swinging. In an interview on Fox Sports Atlanta this week he explained such and also how his elbow was getting in the way of his swing.
So what can we expect from him this year? In the Top 20 3rd Basemen for 2020, Grey gave him a projection of 58/20/65/.241/2 in 407 ABs after learning of the Ozuna signing. However, this spring he is in a position battle for the starting 3B job. All that stands in his way is Johan Camargo. The Braves have already come out and said that they would give the job to whoever the best man is and likely roster the other. That means he only has to prove he’s marginally better than Camargo (who hit .233 with 7 HRs in 98 games last year) because Riley’s upside alone has its own zip code that Johan is renting an apartment in on the upside of a hill off a street called Upside Ave.
Last year before the injury on June 1st, Joey Gallo was hitting .276/.421/.653 with 17 HRs after making similar swing and batting approach changes to calm and balance his body which I coved here. Am I expecting Riley to follow suit with Gallo? Not likely. But there’s potential for a 35 HR bat in Austin Riley if the changes stick and in the potent Braves lineup there could be plenty of opportunities for a handsome number of counting stats. And at his current draft price you could do a lot worse. I’m going to give him a shot at 70/28/81/.252 with a chance for more.