Austin Riley of the Atlanta Braves has taken the league by storm. He’s clubbed eight home runs in his first 17 games of MLB action, which has resulted in him being named NL Rookie of the Month. Yeah, baby! You make me very horny. But then I became very conflicted, as perusing the advanced stats brought me to one conclusion, while observing the at-bats on YouTube took me in another direction. Not so shagadelic. Let’s see if we can determine if he’s trash or treasure.
Riley is only 22 years old, 6′ 3″ tall, and weighs 220 pounds. He began his professional career in 2015. Scouts gave him a 70 grade for raw power, and he hasn’t disappointed.
The 2019 stats are from Triple-A only.
He’s never been a huge walk guy, but has eclipsed the 10% mark three times in his minor league career. The strikeout rate has fluctuated from 21% to as high as 30%. Interestingly, he’s had a BABIP over .350 six times, yet the batting average has been over .300 just three times. Before he received the call up to The Show this season, Riley spent 37 games in Triple-A, where he walked 11.1%, struck out only 19.1%, and had a batting average of .299 with a .286 BABIP. Maybe it is for real. Groovy, baby!
Well…..so far in 71 plate appearances with the big club, Riley has a 4.2% walk rate and a 35.2% strikeout rate. Yuck. Want more vomit-inducing numbers? 21.5% swinging strike rate, 38.3% chase rate, and 68.2% contact rate in the strike zone with a 60.7% contact rate in general. Good thing I collected all those barf bags from every plane flight I took when younger. Coming in real handy now.
There are also numbers that scream regression. Riley is currently sporting a .412 BABIP, which is fueling a .328 batting average. He has shown to be a high BABIP hitter, but .412 is just unsustainable. In addition, he has a .388 ISO. There have only been 12 seasons in the history of baseball in which a player posted a higher ISO. Barry Bonds four times, Babe Ruth three times, Mark McGwire three times, Sammy Sosa once, and Lou Gehrig once. Before I continue, let’s pay homage to 2001 Barry Bonds, who posted a .536 ISO that season. Ha! Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Riley is currently sporting a 44.4% HR/FB rate. Uh, yeah.
See why I’m conflicted?
Now that I’ve washed my mouth with Listerine and have that minty, tingly sensation rejuvenating me, Riley has a hard hit rate of 52.4%. If he qualified, that would place him in the top 10. We know the power is legit, so I’ll move on.
47.6% of his hits are going towards the center of the field. The oppo percentage is 26.2%. I love to see that kind of approach. The thing is, he’s primarily been a pull hitter his whole career, as the pull percentage was often in the 48-49% range. I’d usually automatically dismiss this as an outlier and move on, but when I went onto YouTube and watched some of his at-bats, I was very impressed. He shortened his swing with two strikes, went the opposite way on pitches out of the strike zone, and was also able to drive the ball to right-center with power. He was crushing up-and-in fastballs, from both righties and lefties, and driving off-speed pitches away.
Now I’m just mind f’ing myself.
So I went to Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball to see how pitchers were attacking him. It looks like the standard up-and-in, low-and-away approach. 12.15% of pitches are being thrown low-and-away, the most by a wide margin. No other zone has seen more than 7%. Riley’s power has been up-and-in, and middle to high-middle. Interestingly, the zone in which he whiffs the most is up-and-away. I would’ve thought it’d be low-and-away, but that’s not the case.
I write this every week it seems like, but pitchers will always adjust and figure out new ways to attack a hitter. Eventually, they will find a weakness. Then, it’s up to the hitter to adjust to the adjustment. Well, pitchers are going to start attacking Riley differently, and he will regress. It’s inevitable. My initial thoughts are that pitchers will throw more heat up-and-away and also start throwing more pitches outside of the zone. Riley loves to swing and is in such a groove that he’s likely going to be swinging in the short term. If pitches are off the plate, it will be more difficult to barrel up the ball. Will Riley be able to lay off and take a walk if it’s given? Will that throw off his timing? I’d feel more comfortable with Riley if the underlying numbers supported a soft landing or higher floor, but the swinging strike, contact, and chase rates all scare me that things could fall off a cliff precipitously. With that said, the at-bats look so damn pretty when I watch them, but that’s what YouTube highlights do. Mostly show the good, but numbers don’t lie. And I have to side with those here.