The past year was a big one for Austin Riley. After a breakout campaign in 2021 (4.7 fWAR), all eyes were on the young third baseman. Was the breakout real? Could he get even better?
Fortunately for the Braves, the answer was a resounding “Yes!” Riley, who played the entire season at just 25 years of age, improved on his 2021 numbers to the point where he secured a franchise-record, 10-year deal worth $212 million in July.
Now entrenched in Atlanta for the next decade, let’s take a look back on the season that was.
Riley was the 41st overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, which the Braves acquired by way of trading Craig Kimbrel (and B.J. Upton) to the San Diego Padres. I’d say that transaction worked out pretty well.
What were the expectations?
As mentioned in the introduction, it felt like 2022 was a big year for Riley. After a series of ups and downs in 2019 and 2020 that combined to yield just 0.1 fWAR (though, in large part because of how badly he underhit his xwOBA in 2020), Riley put it all together in 2021 to the tune of a .303/.367/.531 line (136 wRC+) with a strong 4.7 fWAR. It was fair to ask, however, how real the breakout was — Riley outhit his 2021 xwOBA by a fair bit, and didn’t walk as much as one might expect from someone with his contact quality due to his propensity to chase.
Numerically, this made Riley’s 2022 really hard to pin down. He was coming off an All-Star-type season, but was basically a non-factor for most of the past two seasons, with defensive questions that threatened to be serious liabilities if he didn’t hit. Expectations ranged from falling back into a something akin to a role player (think his 2020, but without the xwOBA underperformance) to a perennial All-Star, and everything in between.
Riley took his game to the next level in 2022, more than doubling down on his 2021 success, and showed he was a full-on star. Despite a 53-point drop in batted ball luck (.368 v. .315 BABIP), Riley’s numbers improved thanks to a power surge and better overall approach at the plate. His career-best 5.5 fWAR was ranked fourth among all third basemen, only behind certified stars Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez and Nolan Arenado. He also ranked fourth in wRC+ and first in homers (38) among this cohort.
In an amusing twist of fate, Riley’s wOBA barely budged between 2021 (.379) and 2022 (.377). However, due to increased drag on (some of?) the balls MLB used in the 2022 season, leaguewide offense plummeted, giving Riley a six-point wRC+ boost in 2022 relative to 2021. Further, in 2022, Riley’s wOBA and xwOBA basically matched; RIley’s 2021 line benefited from some substantial xwOBA outperformance (.379 wOBA, .366 xwOBA). That Riley was able to improve on his hitting inputs while much of the rest of the league suffered is pretty impressive.
What went right? What went wrong?
Riley put together one of the greatest months in franchise history in July. As the Braves continued to hit their groove — 18-7 record — Riley was the catalyst, hitting an other-worldly .423/.459/.885 (270 wRC+) while cruising to NL Player of the Month honors. The strong month made Riley a legitimate NL MVP candidate at the time, and the Braves rewarded him with the largest deal in franchise history.
As fate would have it, Riley would go on to struggle (by his standards) the final 2.5 months of the season. He batted just .224/.331/.393 (105 wRC+) over 257 plate appearances. While hardly bad, it was a far cry from his stellar first four months. Inputs-wise, things weren’t as disappointing, as Riley underhit his xwOBA by .015 from August onward, but still, it was kind of a bummer to have things dwindle down as the Braves continued to surge. Breaking up his inputs and outputs by month really shows that his 2022 was the result of two world-destroying months paired with four okay ones, and that’s as fine a way to earn 5.5 fWAR as anything else.
As for how Riley got better, well, it was a bit of everything. He upped his already-prodigious barrel rate, moving into the elite of the elite in that regard (96th percentile). He swung at even more strikes but also hit them more often, without dropping contact quality, which is no easy feat. He chased less, and avoided putting balls in play weakly when he did get fooled, which helped him keep PAs alive. At a high level, he terrorized curves and cutters while not really taking a step back against other pitches, and made huge gains in exploiting the platoon advantage, something he had never really done before (as he was horrible inputs-wise against lefties in both 2020 and 2021).
On the “bummer” side, Riley went just 1-for-15 with a walk and five strikeouts in the NLDS. His defense also remains a challenging part of his profile — he’s not so bad as to be unplayable at third base right now, but it’s definitely a drag on his value and hasn’t really improved year-to-year the way some might have hoped it would.
Want an insane Riley game from this season? Look no further than August 9 at Fenway Park, when he finished a double short of the cycle and got the game-winning hit in extra innings.
Want an insane Riley play? Check out him capping his legendary July with a walkoff double against former teammate Mark Melancon. He crushed a pitch that wasn’t a strike and somehow hit it in exactly the right place to score Matt Olson from first without the advantage of a two-out head start.
Of course, there were some struggles, too. Probably Riley’s worst game of the year was that horrible 11-6 loss to the Padres, the one where Dansby Swanson hit a go-ahead three-run homer only for Will Smith to serve the same up to Ha-Seong Kim shortly thereafter. In that game, Riley went 0-for-5 in particularly brutal fashion: flew out in the first with the go-ahead run on first, struck out to end the third with the go-ahead run on first, flew out to end the fifth with the tying and go-ahead runs on base, struck out to end the sixth with two on base after Swanson’s homer, and flew out to end the eighth with the tying and go-ahead runs on base. Here’s that last, most brutal fly out:
And there was this crushing double play, which had the added drama of staunching a Zack Littell meltdown-slash-roster spot crisis en route to a one-run Braves loss — note that Littell had allowed four straight Braves to reach base to start the inning before this double play:
Riley’s 2023 projects to be a big one. At the ripe old age of 26, the sky is the limit for the young slugger. If we assume the decline immediately after the mid-summer contract extension was just one of those baseball things — and there is no evidence to think it signals a greater downtrend, given his May and June — Riley should push as one of the league’s top hitters.
Steamer essentially forecasts Riley to replicate not his 2022 but his 2021. Even if for some reason you’re down on Riley (and it’s not clear why you would be), it’s hard to see him as anything less than an above-average regular — and he’s clearly got the potential to set the league on fire, defensive issues and all.