Coming into the 2021 season, it felt as though no one had a great grasp on what to expect from Austin Riley. There was no denying his raw talent and especially his raw power, but his consistency at the plate in his career up until this season had left something to be desired. However, the season he put together for the Braves in 2021 not only answered a lot of questions regarding his development, but kept the Braves on the path to their first World Series title since 1995.
The Braves drafted Austin Riley way back in 2015 in the Competitive Balance portion of the first round, making him the 41st overall pick in the draft. Fun fact: the Braves were picking in that spot of the draft as a direct result of the trade of beloved closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres, given that that pick was a part of the return for the Braves in that deal.
While, pre-draft, many teams preferred Riley as a pitcher, the Braves thought he profiled best as a power-hitting third baseman with a cannon for an arm. He rewarded that faith in his ability at the plate quickly, as he posted a .933 OPS through two levels of rookie ball during his pro debut.
After that, Riley steadily rose through the minors. He generally took some time to adjust to each level, but consistently made those adjustments and showed out before getting promoted and moving up to the next rung. His steady progress led to his time in Triple-A, where he posted a .992 OPS in 44 games and hit some balls that I am not sure have landed yet. He was ultimately promoted to the big leagues on May 15, 2019.
If we are talking generic expectations for Austin Riley coming into 2021, there was a healthy mix of concern and optimism. After a debut season that saw him being “from another planet” good for about two weeks and then holding his own for another month before crashing and burning at the plate and then getting injured, the 2020 season saw his quality of contact crater as he looked to reform his approach at the plate. The power wasn’t playing nearly as much and while he did cut down on the strikeouts, it seemed to come at a high cost. His defense at third base was also questionable at times, but it was very uneven as he would make mistakes on routine plays, particularly coming in on balls, but he would also make amazing plays at other times. Part of the problem with Riley’s 2020 was that it left a confusing imprint — he finished below replacement with -0.2 fWAR, but also underperformed his xwOBA by a ton (.307 wOBA, .333 xwOBA) and did a ton of stuff well offensively that didn’t show up in his overall line.
As far as projection systems went, ZiPS clearly was not in love with him. For the 2021 season, ZiPS projected Riley to post 1.4 fWAR on the season with a .239/.297/.461 line with 26 homers. Steamer also didn’t have him as even an average regular. Again, not exactly what you want to expect from a guy that was supposed to be the Braves’ third baseman of the future.
2021 Season Results
Austin Riley 2021 Season Stats: .303/.367/.531, 33 homers, 107 RBI, 91 runs, 7.9 BB%, 25.4% K%
To say that Austin Riley blew his projections out of the water is a gross understatement, as he doubled-ish his highest projection. Other than a lull the first couple weeks in the season and a rough month of June that was mostly the result of massive xwOBA underperformance (.278 wOBA, .342 xwOBA), Riley went off most the rest of the way and was one of the Braves’ top hitters for the entire season. He even started to get some push from local writers for MVP consideration. He set career highs in basically every single offensive category and his 135 wRC+ (which had a fair bit of xwOBA outperformance when it was all said and done) was tied with Freddie Freeman for 12th in the National League among the 57 qualified hitters. He also ranked 14th in the National League in terms of fWAR at 4.2. In short, he was really, really good.
What went right? What went wrong?
We will start with what went wrong for Riley, as that is a significantly shorter list to work through. After posting a 130 wRC+ in the first month of the season followed by a 160 wRC+ for the month of May, the month of June was a rough one for Riley as he posted a 69 wRC+ (nice) for the month with a .238/.281/.362 slash line. Definitely not great, but not his fault. June was also his worst month of the season defensively as he posted -8 Outs Above Average for the month. Something not great was clearly going on with Austin in June, but fortunately he got back on track the rest of the way, and outhit his xwOBA by over .040 the rest of the way to slam whatever bad juju plagued him that month the way he slammed baseballs all year.
A couple notes about the last couple months of the season as well before I start singing his praises the rest of the way. Riley posted a walk rate of 7.9 percent and a strikeout rate of 25.4 percent on the season, which are right in line with his 2020 numbers, and are both perfectly reasonable. However, his walk rates in the last two months of the season were quite bad, as he walked just 2.6 percent of the time in August and 3.3 percent of the time in September. Those months were still strong overall offensively, but they were more good than great and he benefited a ton from his outputs exceeding his inputs in August, so its worth keeping an eye on whether he can get back to drawing free passes and buoy his line a bit for when the balls start finding gloves more often.
As for what went right, well... pretty much everything else. As noted above, Riley set career highs in almost every offensive category in 2021 which, in itself, can be considered a win. More than that, though, is that he didn’t just improve over what he had done previously... he was objectively very, very good. By any measure, a 135 wRC+ and 4.2 fWAR season is excellent and the rest of the league took notice of that. While MVP consideration for Riley was tenuous at best, he did deserve at least some down-ballot love and he got just that ,as he finished seventh in the National League MVP voting and ranked as high as fourth on one ballot. He was really, really good... particularly in the second half of the season where he posted a 155 wRC+, which is exactly when the Braves needed him to be awesome.
One note about his defense here: Riley did finish the season at -5 Outs Above Average on the season, which is admittedly not great. A large chunk of that, though, was due to a pretty atrocious June. Whether it was positioning adjustments, technical changes, or just good ol’ fashioned statistical anomalies that plague our ability to understand defense, he was significantly better later in the year. In particular, he posted +5 OAA in September. It’s hard to know what will stick from 2021 and what won’t, but it will be interesting to see if the defensive metrics like him more in 2022. (Well, at least the non-DRS ones, as Riley somehow had +13 DRS while posting -7 UZR, -5 OAA, and -0.7 FRAA.)
Road to the Title
Austin Riley 2021 Postseason Stats: .277/.309/.446, two homers, eight RBI, seven runs, 99 wRC+
I love these sections of the player reviews because we get to relive over and over the Braves winning the World Series in 2021. This pleases me.
Overall, other than a continuation of his inability to draw walks late in the 2021 regular season, Riley had a solid postseason for the Braves if you are looking at the aggregate of his numbers in a small sample. He drove in runs, he scored runs, contributed a bit of power, and was overall perfectly fine against the best of the best.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
After the NLDS against the stellar Brewers’ pitching staff, which saw him record five hits in four games, including a homer off of Brandon Woodruff in Game Two, Riley came to the NLCS against the Dodgers. The NLCS was arguably Austin’s “worst” series this past postseason, as he recorded five hits in six games. However, his hits were among the most key ones in the series (outside of Eddie Rosario playing out of his mind, of course) as four of those five hits drove in runs. He essentially single-handedly beat the Dodgers in Game One as a wild pitch in his first at-bat brought in the Braves’ first run, a homer in the fourth inning off of Tony Gonsolin drove in the Braves’ second run, and as for the Braves third and final run... well, you probably remember this at-bat against Blake Treinen.
Austin Riley wins game one of the NLCS for the Braves with the walk off hit pic.twitter.com/VPzu2CFSDL— Max Cohan (@MaxCohan) October 17, 2021
While not quite as exciting as a walk-off hit in the postseason against arguably the best team in baseball, Riley later had a key RBI double in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Two off of Julio Urias that tied the game and set the stage for Eddie Rosario to do his thing (with a slight hat tip to Corey Seager’s less than optimal defense) and give the Braves back to back walk-off wins to start the National League Championship Series. Riley’s bat went quiet for the next three games, but Game Six saw him give the Braves their first lead with a ground-rule RBI double in the first inning off of Walker Buehler. Riley singled in his next at-bat, again off of Buehler, before being quiet the rest of the Braves’ series clincher.
That brings us to the World Series. Going into Game 6 of the World Series, Riley was very much in the discussion for WS MVP. That obviously didn’t come to pass as Jorge Soler hit another ball into orbit and Freddie Freeman had a great game as well, but it speaks to how well Austin played during the Fall Classic. Riley went 8-25 with three doubles and three RBI, including an RBI single in Game Four that got the Braves on the board and enabled Dansby Swanson and Jorge Soler’s back-to-back homers to steal the victory and put the Braves in commanding position to take the title.
Riley finished with near-identical WPAs on the regular season and in the postseason, both of which were quite high. He had positive cWPA in the regular season and a massive 21.03% cWPA in the postseason, thanks in large part to the aforementioned NLCS Game 1 and Game 2, as well as World Series Game 4, which had his highest single-game cWPA of the year. His two-out, RBI single in that game was his single highest cWPA play:
Outlook for 2022
Well first off, the least surprising news on this front happened just yesterday as Austin Riley was tendered a contract, so he is under contract to be a Brave in 2022. Given the season he just put together, this is great news and also was a given. The question really is how much he gets in arbitration, and if the Braves consider giving him a contract extension. The first part is a bit easier to answer. Most estimates for what Austin will get in arbitration land in the $4.0 million to $4.3 million range, and based on what we have seen in the past for guys that broke out right before their first year of arbitration, that makes sense. There is a chance that he ends up going to an arbitration hearing if the gap in proposed 2022 salaries is too wide between the two sides, but the projections seem reasonable enough that that is where he ends up for 2022.
As for a contract extension, if the Braves think he is the guy he was in 2021, with good all-around hitting, great power, and an overall sizzling value profile even if defense drags him down, they should absolutely figure out a way to get a deal done. However, it’s more likely that both sides wait and see. From the Braves’ perspective, anything other than a team-friendly deal probably won’t happen yet given that, at the end of the day, we’re still just talking about one season of superlative performance. From Riley’s perspective, he likely will want to show that he can be really productive at the plate again in 2022 before considering locking in his value, or whether it even makes sense to do so.
So what can we expect from Austin Riley in 2022? Well, the power is real as he has consistently shown that throughout his time in the organization. The defense could be improving, and it will be important to see how much the metrics like him now that the Braves are putting him in better positions to succeed. I do think it is fair to say that it’s pretty unlikely that Riley is a .300 hitter the rest of the way, though. As a result, there is more of an onus for him to get on base via free passes, but that power is always going to play. Expect a strong season out of Riley in 2022... although it may be wise to not think he will replicate his efforts in 2021. Steamer’s already on board, projecting a 3.3 WAR season with improved defense and some offensive regression. We’ll see what happens.