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How did Austin Riley get like this?

Remember when this guy couldn’t hit anything but fastballs?

Los Angeles Angels v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Here we are on August 1 and while everybody's mostly concerned about what's going to happen by the time the smoke from the trade deadline on August 2 has cleared, I'd instead like to take a look back. As you've guessed from the title of this article, this is going to be talking about the utterly astonishing month of July that Austin Riley just got done having at the plate. However, we need to go a bit further than simply looking at the past 31 days of action for Riley.

Instead, we need to go back to April of 2021. That's when Austin Riley spent most of that month stumbling out of the gate. It wasn't exactly encouraging, especially when you consider that he finished the 60-game season of 2020 where it looked like he was on his way to repeating his personal 80-game rookie season in 2019. That's to say that improving his wRC+ from 85 in 2019 to just 88 in 2020 was underwhelming to say the least. In fact, up until April 20, 2021, Austin Riley was only hitting .230/.293/.426 with a .302 wOBA, .195 Isolated Power and just 83 wRC+ over 563 plate appearances. It appeared as if the version of Austin Riley that entered Major League Baseball like a bull in a china shop was going to simply be a brilliant-but-brief flash instead of an extended vision of things to come in the future.

Then April 21, 2021 came around and this happened.

Yeah, this may have been one of those typical Yankee Stadium home runs that only got out because of the ridiculous short porch in right field but hey, if it clears the fence in fair territory then who cares? A dinger is a dinger and Austin Riley was finally on the board for the 2021 campaign in that regard. In fact, that was his first extra-base hit of the season — on April 21!!!

Still, there's no reason to get excited over an 83 wRC+ hitter to-that-date simply getting one over the short porch in a hitter-friendly ballpark, right? There's absolutely no reason to believe that this is going to be the start of something great for this guy since we've already got nearly a full season's worth of games from this guy to show that he's probably going to end up being underwhelming.

As it turned out, April 21, 2021 ended up being the clear line of demarcation between Austin Riley the also-ran and Austin Riley the bona fide star. From that date of April 21, 2021, Riley has had 1038 plate appearances and he's hit .307/.366/.578 with a .398 wOBA, a .271 Isolated Power and 151 wRC+. It's almost as if getting that fly ball to somehow make it into the hands of some Yankees fan in the Bronx was like turning on the switch for Riley, because he's been fantastic since then. While I personally believed that the calls for Riley to win MVP last year were a bit premature, I'd say that it’s a far more reasonable shout this year. He’d likely still be an outsider but at least he’d have a decent claim for it.

While a single month can’t sum up an entire MVP campaign, we really do need to step back and appreciate just how absurd Austin Riley was at the plate during the month of July. Let’s start with the lows; Riley had two games where he didn’t pick up a hit. That was it. Riley was quiet on July 4 against the Cardinals and then the Phillies held him hitless on July 27. Other than that, Riley was absolutely banging baseballs all over the place and that isn’t an exaggeration, either. There were only six games during July where Riley got at least one hit but it wasn’t an extra-base hit. You know you’re on some kind of heater when simply getting a hit was considered to be an off-night.

Other than that, Riley was on a completely different planet in July. His slash line was an otherworldly .423/.459/.885 with 15 doubles, 11 home runs (predictably resulting in a comical .462 Isolated Power number) and a monstrous wOBA of .562 to go along with a ludicrous 267 wRC+. This is one time where counting stats actually puts this in perspective, as his 26 extra-base hits in one month broke a record that was held by the legendary Henry Aaron. This was not just an incredible month when it comes to the Braves and their illustrious history; This was an incredible month when it comes to baseball history in general.

As if that wasn’t crazy enough, Aaron actually set that record in a full month of baseball — Riley actually had a disadvantage because he did it with the All-Star break in the middle! If it weren’t for that, Austin Riley would’ve had a chance to put some distance between himself and Henry Aaron. I really can’t believe that I just typed that sentence out. Anyways, that only made Riley’s walk-off hit on Sunday even sweeter as he broke the record in extremely dramatic fashion.

Usually this would be the time where I’d try to figure out what the catch is and try to tell you when to expect some player going crazy to eventually calm down and return to Earth. That’s where this gets fun since Austin Riley returning to Earth is still a very good hitter. So far, Riley’s BABIP for the season is at .345 and that’s including the boost he got from having an absurd .452 BABIP throughout the month of July. Meanwhile, Riley went 160 games last season and finished with a .368 BABIP. That suggests that even if Riley’s crazy high BABIP comes down, it wouldn’t come careening down to a level that would prevent him from continuing to tear the cover off of the baseball.

So instead of being possessed by the ghost of 2001-2004 Barry Bonds like he was for this past month, Austin Riley would simply go back to being, well, Austin Riley. Being Austin Riley is pretty good right now and we as Braves fans can’t ask for much more from the All-Star third baseman at the moment. Of course he’s going to cool down, but the cool down figures to be as smooth as it possibly could be.

While it’s only been four seasons for Austin Riley as a major leaguer, it feels like we’ve been down a pretty long road with this guy so far. Riley went from exploding onto the scene upon being promoted to the big leagues to getting figured out just as quickly. That led to an extended adjustment period where Riley was given time and patience to figure things out at the plate. By April 21, 2021, we got our first sign that maybe he was on the way to figuring it out. By October 2021, he was busy giving the Dodgers fits in the NLCS. By the end of July 2022, he was even more busy breaking records set by Henry Aaron. Who knows what the future holds for Austin Riley, but I’m definitely excited to see what he’ll be up to in the coming months.

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