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Examining Austin Riley’s 2022 offensive uptick

Austin Riley took yet another step forward offensively in 2022

MLB: NLDS-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
Austin Riley took another step forward
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Riley has be a key member of the Atlanta Braves offense for the past two years. In 2022 he took his offensive output to a new level. Let’s explore what he did differently that helped him see his offense reach the elite level territory.

In 2021, Riley had a slash line of .303/.367/.531 with 33 HRs and a 136 wRC+ in 662 plate appearances. In 2022, Riley had a slash line of .273/.349/.528 with 38 HRs and a 142 wRC+ in 693 plate appearances.

But wait a second, at first glance it looks like he had a better year in 2021 if we look at the slash lines. The reality is that in 2022, offense was down across the league. The league average OPS was the lowest it has been since 2014, and the second lowest it has been since 1992.

If we look at wRC+, which is adjusted to factor in the offense across the league, we see that Riley’s output was six percent higher in 2022 than in 2021.

For reference, in 2022 Riley’s wRC+ was 15th among all qualified hitters. In 2021 his wRC+ was 21st.

Now, let’s look at some key Statcast numbers:

· xwOBA in 2021 was top 15.0 percent, in 2022 it was top 3.0 percent

· xSLG in 2021 was top 114.0 percent, in 2022 it was top 2.0 percent

· xOBP in 2021 was top 27.0 percent, in 2022 it was top 14.0 percent

· Average EV in 2021 was top 33.0 percent, in 2022 it was top 4.0 percent

· Hard Hit Percentage in 2021 was top 25.0 percent, in 2022 it was top 5.0 percent

Needless to say, it is apparent that if consider the rest of the league, Austin Riley took an impressive step forward offensively.

What did Austin Riley change to get these results?

The first area that draws the eye is that Riley’s hard hit percentage and average exit velocity (EV) took a big step forward. In 2021, Riley’s hard hot percentage was 45.6 percent, which was a career high at the time. In 2022, it was a full 5.2 percent higher at 50.8 percent. In 2022, Riley’s average EV was 2.4 MPH higher than his 2021 at 92.5, which was also a career high.

So, what are some reasons this was possible?

First, Riley’s hard hit percentage on every pitch type was the best of his career. Against off-speed, his hard hit percentage jumped from 41.5 in 2021 to 53.8. Against breaking pitches it jumped from 44.9 percent to 51.3. Finally, against fastballs it jumped from 47.2 to 49.8.

Hard Hit rate by season

It is safe to say that when you hit every pitch type hard more often, you are going to see a significant uptick in hard hit percentage.

It also helped that Riley’s weak contact percentage was significantly lower in 2022 than 2021. In 2021 his weak percentage was 5.1, in 2022 it was 2.9.

Next area that draws the eye is that Riley was more patient. He had a career high walk percentage of 8.2 percent. This was only 0.3 percent higher than 2021, but walks were down across the league. In 2021 he was in the bottom 36.0 percent. In 2022, he jumped up to being almost league average at the bottom 51.0 percent.

A big area that factors into not only better walk numbers, but better overall contact is that Riley’s chase percentage was down.

Chase Rate by season

Once again, on every pitch type Riley’s chase rate was at a career best. With off-speed pitches Riley had a career best chase rate of 38.2 percent, which was 2.7 percent better than 2021. With fastballs it dropped from 28.1 percent in 2021 to 26.8 in 2022. Finally, on breaking pitches his chase rate dropped from 32.0 percent to 31.6 percent.

Chasing a bad pitch does not guarantee that it will result in a strike (although it can increase the odds). In fact, Riley’s chase and miss rates rose from 2021 to 2022 on every pitch type, yet his strikeout rate dropped by 1.2 percent. However, what it does do is help prevent weak contact, which we see evidence of with his previously mentioned drop-off in weak contact.

Chase and Miss rate by season

As we dig deeper into how Riley performed into pitch types, one pitch sticks out among the rest. There has been this false narrative across social media that Austin Riley struggles against the curveball. It is the exact opposite.

In 2022, Austin Riley was the best hitter among hitters with at least 10 plate appearances against the curveball by a large margin.

By Statcast’s Run Value added metric. Austin Riley led all of MLB with 14. The next closest was Shohei Ohtani and Marcus Semien with 10. That is 40.0 percent better than second place.

Facing 216 curveballs, Austin Riley had an insane batting average of .406, slugging of .734, and wOBA of .502. For reference, the league leader in overall wOBA among qualified hitters was Aaron Judge with a .458. On top of it all, he had a hard hit rate of 56.5 percent.

To be fair, over an extended period of time, we may have seen these numbers drop since his xSTATS pointed to him having an xBA of .295, xSLG of .512, and an xwOBA of .376. Still though, those numbers are still impressive. Riley still placed 14th among all MLB hitters in xwOBA against the curve. So even with a drop off of wOBA down to his expected number, he was still elite.

This is nothing new. Riley was 6th in MLB in Run Value against the curve in 2021 with 8. The difference between 14 in 2022 and 8 in 2021 is still a big jump, and is worth pointing out that this had a big impact on Riley’s 2022 offensive success. Interesting side note, Adam Duvall led MLB in Run Value against the curve with 18 in 2021.

Summary

In a nutshell, we can point to a few things as to why Austin Riley had an uptick in offense in 2022.

Riley hit the ball hard more often, and against every pitch type. It is pretty obvious that this will most of the time result in positive outcomes.

Riley also chased the ball outside of the zone a career best rate. Like his hard it rate, it was also against every pitch type. His swing miss rate against pitches outside the zone did increase. What this seems to mean is he chased less pitches and did not make contact as often on the ones he did chase. This helped him not have as much weak contact.

Finally, Riley obliterated the curveball. He led the league in Run Value against it. He was very good in 2021, but he took it to a new level in 2022.

Riley’s defense is a different story, but we will save that for another time.

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