clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Starting Nine: The sweet life of Austin Riley

On a year unlike any other for the third baseman, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s speed on full display and Charlie Morton’s struggles

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Texas Rangers
Austin Riley, who finished April with 165 wRC+, 35 percentage points better than a year ago, is on pace for 42 home runs and 42 doubles.
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Riley opens up after a life changing year, Dansby Swanson is setting the standard among all defenders and, despite a string of bad luck, the Braves offense showed signs of life in salvaging a split with the Mets.

Setting the stage as the Braves return to Truist Park for an eight-game homestand.

1. The Life of Riley

There was an added benefit for Austin Riley in the Braves’ now-finished seven-game road trip, and it wasn’t just facing the Mets, who he’s now torched for a .982 OPS and 12 homers.

The new dad was able to catch up on some sleep.

On April 20, Riley and wife Anna welcomed son Eason Michael Riley, the birth the topper on what’s been a year that the third baseman said has clearly been the most transformative of his life.

“No doubt (it has been),” Riley said. I don’t know if I can top the year I’ve had the last year up until now ... having a good season, winning a World Series, had a good hunting season. Now a father. It’s been pretty blessed. It’s been crazy. It’s flown by. I feel like we just got done with playoffs.”

Riley’s doing his part, at least on the field, to make a run at topping it.

After a breakout year in which he hit .303/.367/.531 with 33 home runs, 33 doubles, 135 wRC+ and a 4.7 fWAR, Riley is hitting 60 percent above league average with seven homers and seven home runs with a 1.1 fWAR. The 25-year-old is on pace to hit 42 homers with 42 doubles, and completed April with a wRC+ of 165, 35 percentage points better than a year ago.

While you can still categorize it as small-sample size after playing in 26 games, but Riley’s hard-hit rate of 56.3 percent is a 10.7 percent increase over 2021, his barrel rate is up five percent (18.3), and his average exit velocity (93.1 mph) is three precent up over last year.

It’s a start that’s solidifying his place in the upper echelon of third basemen, and it’s one that also comes with a new understanding. Riley heard players that became fathers before say that when they came home, the highs and the lows of the games melted away. Even in the first few days of fatherhood, Riley is already experiencing that.

“Really doesn’t matter (how I play),” Riley said. “He’s dependent on Anna and I. He’s looking to us to survive and being able go to home and pick him up ... it kind of changes your perspective on days and when things aren’t going your way.”

Both natives of Mississippi, the couple settled on their son’s name because of a street sign they’d routinely pass near Tupelo for Eason Boulevard. Now that Eason’s here, his dad is already thinking ahead.

“I already told Anna ‘Can I get him a gun yet? Can I get his first gun,” said Riley, ever the avid hunter. “I was very pumped when we found out he was a boy and being able to take him fishing, golfing, hunting, get him to swing a bat and stuff like that. That’s stuff I’m definitely looking forward to.”

2. Signs of life amid slow start

While the Braves managed to leave Citi Field with a split, denying the Mets their first series win of the season, sitting six games back in the National League East is the picture of a title defense that hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

They’ve lost 10 of their last 17 games, with a 3-4 road trip putting the Braves six games back of New York in the division, and despite the offense coming alive in a 9-2 win Wednesday, Atlanta has a minus-8 run differential.

Even while struggling to get to .500 last season — a mark this team at least surpassed after three games — at this point in 2021, the Braves were just 1 1/2 games back.

Three every day players are hitting below league average — four when you include Ronald Acuña Jr., who is still working his way back to consistent playing time — and despite some strong outings from Ian Anderson (2.45 ERA in his last four outings), Max Fried (1.85 in his last four) and Kyle Wright (1.74 on the season), the starting staff is 23rd in fWAR (1.1).

Waiting 111 games to get above .500 last season before going on to win the World Series creates both hope, and grace for this slow start. The pessimist will look to playoffs odds that have gone from 85.6 percent in the preseason to 70.2 in an expanded field, but in a season that’s just 16 percent complete, Wednesday’s season-high run output against a team over .500 may be the start of things to come with a lineup that is just getting its best player back.

Speaking of that player ...

3. See Acuña. See him run.

Getting Ronald Acuña’s groove back is going to take time. He’s hitting 41 percent below league average (59 wRC+), hitting .200 with a .526 OPS and has just one extra-base hit.

That one XBH coming at 116.6 mph — marking the fourth hardest-hit ball of his career — is a bright spot, but the true eye-opener has been in that speed.

Acuña has already stolen two bases through six games, and he got into a rundown Wednesday against the Mets, only to get to second successfully as he ran around Francisco Lindor. But most impressive was what he did during Monday’s series opener in New York, with the 30.5 feet per second he ripped off in beating out an infield single. The only players who have had instances of 30.0 ft/sec or higher this season are the Royals’ Bobby Whitt Jr. (30.2) and the Astros’ Jose Siri and Dodgers’ Trea Turner at 30.1 each.

The added benefit of Acuña’s rehab process was that coming off a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, basically every day became leg day.

“Obviously, with the added focus of strengthening my legs throughout the entire rehab process & developing those muscles, I think that could help my speed,” Acuña said upon his return.

After averaging 29.4 ft/sec in 2021 and 29.2 in 2020, it’s looking like that focus did exactly that.

4. Isn’t he glovely?

Over the last 10 games, there has been no hotter bat in the Braves’ lineup than Dansby Swanson. His two hits in Wednesday’s series finale with the Mets gives him a .344 average and .937 OPS in this stretch, though he’s still hitting .233 on the season with a strikeout total (36) that leads the National League.

While the offense has taken some time to get going, there’s been nothing lacking with Swanson’s glove work.

He leads all of baseball with six Outs Above Average, one better than the Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop, and he he’s two better than the next closest shortstops, a group that includes the Cubs’ Nico Hoerner, the Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi an the Astros’ Jeremy Peña.

In the Statcast era, only one Braves player has ever been in the top 10 in OAA over a 162-game season: outfielder Ender Inciarte, who did so in 2016, 2017 and 2018. While Swanson was fifth in the shortened 2020 season, Atlanta has never had a shortstop finish higher than 15th over a 162-game slate.

5. Charlie Morton struggling in a major way

You have to go back to 2010, the first time Charlie Morton had pitched in the season’s opening month to find a March/April in which he had been a worse ERA than the 7.00 he just posted. It got no better to start May, with the veteran allowing four earned over 5 2/3 Tuesday against the Mets.

Morton had a 12.57 ERA five starts into that 2010 season, with his current 6.85 ERA the second worst of his 15-year career to open a campaign.

Morton’s four-seam is generating a 11.7 whiff rate after that figure sat at 23.2 percent in 2021 and the expected slugging percentage has risen from .392 to .626. Meanwhile, the curveball that resulted in 26.6 wCB in 2021 is at minus-2.0 with its lowest whiff rate (29.9 percent) since 2012.

Credit Morton for grinding it out in Monday’s loss to the Mets, but at 38 years old coming off a broken leg, Morton hasn’t been the same. Hitters’ sweet-spot percentage is up 6.8 percent (36.7), and his strikeout rate is down nearly 13 percent.

Since reinventing himself for a second time in 2017 en route to becoming an All-Star with the Astros, Morton has never struggled to this degree. This latest five-start run represents the highest ERA he’s had in any five starts in the past six years.

6. Expectations and realities

Striking out on three pitches that were nowhere near the strike zone like Marcell Ozuna did Wednesday against the Mets is its own kind of torture, but overall few teams have been bitten by bad luck more than the Braves.

Third overall in barrel percentage (7.0 percent) and eighth in hard-hit rate (40.6 percent) and ninth in exit velocity (89.5 mph), Atlanta is just 19th in BABIP (.276) and leads the NL with hard-hit outs with 120. The Braves’ expected slugging percentage (.486) is 93 points higher than its actual percentage (.393). The White Sox (141-point differential) and Yankees (100-point difference) are the only teams to see a higher differential.

No one has felt that squeeze more than Marcell Ozuna. While Ozzie Albies (.210) has a worse BABIP than Ozuna’s .244, Ozuna’s ranks in the top four percent in exit velocity (113.9) and the minus-1.148 difference between his slugging percentage (.383) and expected slugging of .531 is the highest of any qualified Atlanta hitter.

7. Luck shining on Travis d’Arnaud

Amid the frustrations with the Braves offense, Travis d’Arnaud is firmly putting the issues of his injury-ravaged 2021 in the rearview.

Hitting .304/.333/.464 with two home runs over 72 plate appearances, d’Arnaud’s wRC+ of 129 is 51 percent higher than a year ago and his fWAR (0.7) has already surpassed last season’s 0.6.

It’s mind-boggling that he went 69 plate appearances without a walk before his bases-loaded pass in the sixth inning Wednesday, which made him the 14th player since 2000 to not get issued a free pass through 26 games, but nonetheless, d’Arnaud has the fifth best on-base percentage of any catcher.

While Swanson has the team’s best BABIP (.370) among qualified hitters, no Braves everyday player has had better luck than d’Arnaud, whose actual average is nine points higher than his expected average (.295) and his wOBA (.350) is better than his xwOBA (.344).

8. Closers about to take center stage

Kenley Jansen. Josh Hader. The former is second among active players with 357 saves; the latter has the most of anyone since 2019 with 94.

One of the best closers of this generation, and arguably the most dominant current closer are about to take center stage as the Braves host the Brewers. They meet up both riding 24-game save streaks, the longest of any active player.

They’ve expectedly been dominant over those stretches, with Jansen striking 34 with four walks and a 0.38 ERA over his streak, while Hader has fanned 35 with 11 walks and a 0.00 ERA in his.

These represent the longest concurrent save streaks since 2015, which saw a number of them. Craig Kimbrel (35), Aroldis Chapman (29) and Greg Holland (26) all saw their runs come to an end in May of that season. Mark Melancon (35) and Zack Britton (24) had streaks that were snapped within five days of each other in August.

Here’s how daunting the task is for either of these teams ending those streaks should a save opportunity present itself: the Braves lineup are hitting .139 vs. Hader (though Ozuna has taken him deep twice and Matt Olson once) with 16 strikeouts to two walks, and Jansen has held the Brewers to a .200 average, fanning 17 with three walks.

9. Striding toward more franchise history

Expectedly given the offseason focus on strengthening the bullpen, the Braves’ relief corps have been among the game’s best, ranking third in fWAR (1.4) and second in K/9 (10.80).

A big reason for that strikeout total is Spencer Strider — who is tied with Collin McHugh and A.J. Minter for the team lead — and who has gotten off to the best start in the franchise’s Atlanta era with that K total.

Strider’s 16 strikeouts through his first seven career games are the most of any Brave since 1966. They’re also the most through eight games as well.

Should he get at least four Ks over his next three appearances — a good bet given his 32 percent strikeout rate in 2022 — Strider will take down Craig Kimbrel, who has the most through 10 games (19).

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Battery Power Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Atlanta Braves news from Battery Power