When the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson last November, many wondered what that would ultimately mean for Austin Riley. Riley had torn up Gwinnett before a knee injury sidelined him and likely cost him a chance at a September call-up in 2018. An injury to Ender Inciarte in mid-May provided an opportunity for Riley, not at third base, but in the outfield. He got off to a torrid start at the plate and carried the Braves for a stretch. The league adjusted and Riley wasn’t able to right the ship afterwards, scuffling to the finish line with serious problems at the plate and an injury. Despite those late-season struggles, he could still play a major part for the Braves in 2020.
What went right in 2019?
Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos said many times that the acquisition of Donaldson wouldn’t block Riley when he was ready. Riley did exactly what he needed to do to look ready, getting off to a massively-good start at Gwinnett that included a 160 wRC+ and 15 homers in around six weeks of play. The injury to Inciarte opened the door and Riley made the transition to the outfield surprisingly well. (Even by the end of the year, Riley tallied +4 DRS and +3 UZR in around a third of a season defensively, which is very impressive for a player learning the outfield. By comparison, his OAA and CPA were around zero, but even that could be thought of as beating expectations.) Riley burst onto the scene with a homer in his major league debut and hit seven over his first 15 games in Atlanta. He ended the first half hitting .257/.312/.561 with 16 home runs and a 116 wRC+.
While the rest of his season really soured pretty much everything about his 2019, it’s hard and perhaps unbecoming to minimize just how good he was when he first came up. Between his debut and June 29, he was a top-50 batter in baseball (133 wRC+), tied for third in MLB in homers with 14, and was first in all of MLB by WPA.
June 12 was just a day in the life of early-season Austin Riley. In the first inning, he hit a two-run triple. He singled and scored in the third, and after two flyouts in the middle innings, hit a game-tying solo homer in the bottom of the ninth. He would then score the walkoff run in the 11th after being hit by a pitch to start the frame. It was a charmed period, basically.
What went wrong in 2019?
Riley’s scorching first six weeks were great, but there were obvious red flags. He was running both an elevated BABIP and a HR/FB around twice league average, but neither of those are particularly weird during a hot streak. Instead, Riley had the second-highest whiff rate in the majors even when he was raking, along with the sixth-highest swing rate, a top-30 rate of missing pitches out of the zone, and a top-five rate of missing pitches inside the zone. While he was legitimately raking during that period (.385 wOBA, .373 xwOBA), there was some concern about whether he could pull off the Javier Baez impression at the plate all season. It turns out that that concern was well-founded: he couldn’t.
Riley’s troubles at the plate centered on his inability to make contact. As pitchers adjusted, he began to whiff at more and more offerings that were out of the strike zone. He hit just .156/.214/.266 in July and struck out a whopping 42.9% of the time. He suffered a knee injury in a weight room accident in mid-August that landed him on the injured list. He escaped with no structural damage in the knee but would remain on the shelf until rosters expanded in September. His struggled continued once he returned and he was ultimately left off the team’s roster for the Division Series. Through his final 31 games, Riley managed a .161/.211/.276 line while whiffing 41% of the time. He actually swung less after June 29 than before, but the real kicker was that that led to more called strikes, and the lower contact rate, especially in the zone (when his rate of hitting strikes was already problematic when he was raking), essentially doomed him. Combine those things with worse, off-balance contact even when he did connect, and you have a recipe for a disastrous second half that tanked his overall line; Riley finished at just 0.2 fWAR and an 86 wRC+, dropping a full win from the 1.2 fWAR he had amassed through June 29.
July 23, a loss to the Royals, exemplified Riley’s struggles in the second half. Riley got a rare start due to a lefty, Danny Duffy, starting for Kansas City. In the second, he struck out on four pitches, swinging through both sliders he saw from Duffy. He whiffed two more times in the fourth, but managed to single off a curveball. In the sixth, despite seeing Duffy twice already, he struck out on three pitches: called strike, foul, whiff — all three were in the strike zone. After a 2-0 flyout in the eighth, Riley came to bat with the tying run on third and the winning run on first with two outs. He saw three fastballs from Ian Kennedy. He took the first one for a strike, whiffed on a second one at his eyeballs, and then swung through a letter-high one to end the game.
What should we expect in 2020?
Throughout his time in the minors, Riley showed the ability to adjust. He often started seasons slowly only to heat up in the second half. That never materialized at the major league level in 2019 (though imagine him heating up over his first half, wow) although the knee injury in the second half certainly cost him time.
What 2020 holds for Riley may hinge on what else the Braves do this offseason. If Donaldson returns, then he figures to be in the mix in the outfield perhaps as a potential platoon partner for Nick Markakis in left field. If Donaldson doesn’t return and the Braves don’t add another option from outside the organization either, then Riley will likely go to Spring Training with the opportunity to compete for the third base job.
It also wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him begin the season back at Triple-A, at least for a while. His carried a 36.4% strikeout rate over 297 plate appearances in 2019. Starting in Triple-A would give him a chance to see regular at-bats while working at third base or in left field. The Braves may be reluctant to thrust him into the right-hand side of a platoon where he will see limited at-bats, at least initially.
We saw the best and the worst of Riley in 2019. He will need to show that he can make the necessary adjustments in 2020 to become a player that the franchise can depend on.