ATLANTA — Austin Riley is in the midst of a career year, and a defining one with his first All-Star Game appearance and new contract. But going into the biggest season of the season, the Atlanta Braves third baseman finds himself dealing with something very different.
“I felt like my at-bats have been there,” Riley said Friday before Braves opened a series vs. the New York Mets with the National League East title on the line. “I was talking with (Kevin) Seitzer and (Bobby Magallanes), our hitting guys, and I feel like in the past with my slumps there’s been a bunch of strikeouts. I’m not striking out a whole lot, just getting at-bats going 3-2 and missing my pitches. It’s just a matter of dealing with that.”
Riley’s 97 wRC+ in September amounts to the first month this season in which he’s hit below league average. He carries a .204/.312/.387 average since August, and in his last nine games, Riley has one extra base hit — a double Sept. 22 vs. the Philadelphia Phillies — and hasn’t driven in a single run in that span.
Having hit third in the last 46 games going back to Aug. 7, manager Brian Snitker moved Riley down to fourth Wednesday vs. the Washington Nationals in favor of rookie phenom Michael Harris II. Riley remained in fourth for Friday’s series opener vs. the Mets.
To Riley’s point, the strikeouts haven’t been excessive. His 26 in 109 plate appearances in September (a 23.9 rate), is an uptick over July (18 percent) and August (20.5 percent), but it’s still lower than in June (25.9 percent), when he was hitting 25 percent above league average.
The biggest struggles in this month have come against four-seam fastballs. Riley is hitting .120 against the pitch after a .519 average in July and .290 in August, and he’s had just one extra-base hit (a home run) on four-seamers. He had 20 doubles, triples or home runs vs. the pitch through last month. But his average is more than 100 points below his expected average (.221) and his slugging percentage (.240) is 150 points below the expected slug.
Riley believes it’s just a matter of that one moment that gets him back on track.
“I like my cage work. I like my BP work,” he said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and executing a plan. It takes one barrel to click and get going again. Just looking forward to that.”
If ever there was a time the Braves needed Riley to look like the player who was fourth in NL MVP odds entering the second half, it’s now, in this series.
“It’s been a fun year playing against (the Mets),” Riley said. “It seems like every game you really try to really get after it and I know they are too.”
Bidding for a fifth straight division title, the Braves go into the series trailing the Mets by one game. If New York sweeps, they’ll be celebrating a division title come Sunday night, and should it win two, would have a two-game lead going into the final series. The best the Braves can hope for is to take all three and have a two-game cushion of their own heading into their last three games, while taking two would result tie the standings, but the Mets — who enter Friday up 9-7 in the season series — would hold the tiebreaker.
Without a Mets sweep, both teams will be left scoreboard-watching over the final series, when New York hosts the Washington Nationals, and the Braves head to Miami to face the Marlins.
Riley has torched Mets pitching, hitting .302 with a .920 OPS and 10 home runs across his career vs. their current arms. That includes a .980 OPS and two HRs vs. Friday’s starter Jacob deGrom. He also took Max Scherzer — who gets the ball Saturday — deep in July and has three hits in six at-bats against Sunday starter Chris Bassitt.
Despite Riley’s struggles, the Braves have remained a top-10 offense, ranking 10th in September with 4.2 fWAR and 118 runs behind five batters at 147 wRC+ or better. But with a postseason that basically begins Friday night — as the Braves try to inch closer to another division title, the No. 2 seed in the NL and a spot in the Division Series — they’ll be looking for that one barrel that gets him going again.