Watching the development of Austin Riley over the past five years has been more than remarkable. Once a hyped prospect with some questions to his game, Riley has transformed into arguably the best third baseman in the game with big-time power and, as he showed in 2023, a much-improved glove from the earliest days of his career.
In the early days of the rebuild, the Braves selected Riley with the 41st pick in the 2015 draft. The team acquired the pick from San Diego in the Craig Kimbrel trade. Riley made his debut in 2019 and played the shortened 2020 as well, until a huge breakout in 2021 and an even better campaign in 2022. In the middle of the 2022 campaign, the Braves signed him to the biggest contract in franchise history: $232 million over 10 years spanning 2023-2032, with a club option for the 2033 season.
What were the expectations?
Riley had firmly cemented himself as a top-five third baseman coming into the season. The ZiPS projection model had Riley’s central estimate as 4.8 WAR with a 131 wRC+ in his age-26 campaign, a lofty mark but one that seemed entirely possible after a breakout 2021 and even-better 2022. In the middle of a loaded Braves lineup, the sky was the limit for Riley’s production, and ZiPS actually had him as the guy forecasted to be most productive, on average, on his team.
Even aside from ZiPS, Riley was coming off a 4.8 fWAR campaign in 2021, and then posted 5.6 fWAR in 2022. When you consider that even his “down” 2020 was the result of a massive xwOBA underperformance, it seemed like 3.5 WAR or so was his floor, and of course, Riley was primed to do much more than that.
Riley had another monster year, putting up .281/.345/.516, a 127 wRC+, and 5.2 fWAR across 159 games.
Offensively, Riley couldn’t quite muster the highs of the prior season (where he posted an astounding 143 wRC+), but his 127 wRC+ was still second-best among all third basemen in the league, trailing only Isaac Paredes in Tampa Bay. (Jose Ramirez, who out-fWARed Riley, hit worse in the PAs where he didn’t play third base, so while his 135 wRC+ as a third baseman cleared Riley’s 127, his aggregate 123 did not.) Riley’s walk and strikeout numbers were virtually the same as the season before and his power only tailed off a smidge.
Interestingly enough, Riley’s first half was pedestrian by his lofty standards with just a 106 wRC+ through mid-July. He went crazy down the stretch, however, with a 153 wRC+ as the Braves clinched their sixth straight division title. Riley’s offensive production ranked 16th overall in the second half, and his 3.4 WAR trailed only a couple of players you may have heard of: Mookie Betts, teammate Ronald Acuña Jr., former teammate Freddie Freeman, teammate Matt Olson, Julio Rodriguez and Marcus Semien. Some of this was driven by xwOBA underperformance in the first half and overperformance in the second half, but some of it was just the fact that Riley went ham in July, and outhit his xwOBA a bunch when he had a relatively soft August.
What went right?
It was largely more of the same offensively for Riley, which makes him arguably the best player at his position on the planet (although Jose Ramirez is really good, too).
One interesting note: he cut down his swing rate quite a bit. He only swung at 31 percent of pitches outside of the zone (which is very good) after a 37 percent rate coming into the year. He also swung at seven percent less of the pitches inside the zone and trimmed his overall swing rate from 51.6 percent to 48.2 percent year-over-year. We will see if this is a continuing trend or if he amps his swing rate back up in 2024.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of Riley’s 2023 was his continued improvement defensively. While the defensive metrics have always disagreed on Riley, likely owing to his positioning, he was consistently a negative defender by Statcast’s Outs Above Average until 2023, when he managed to be neutral. While defense tends to bounce around like crazy in small samples, Riley both started and ended the year with substantially negative months, but was positive for all three summer months to end up with his best defensive mark ever.
In the playoffs, Riley was one of the few bats to show up, with a 181 wRC+ in his 17 playoff PAs. He was the only Brave with a wOBA or xwOBA over .400 in the four games (doing both). In addition to an early homer in the decisive Game 4, he provided a huge swing in Game 2 to even up the series.
Austin Riley - Atlanta Braves (1)* pic.twitter.com/sBnnaO78s4— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) October 10, 2023
While most other things paled in comparison to that temporarily season-saving blast, he also had a few other cool moments, like this three-run homer to turn around a game against the Diamondbacks:
What went wrong?
Sure, the first half could have been a bit better, but I’ve got nothing to really nitpick. A decimal point off of being a WAR leader at third base. Hits the crap out of the baseball. Defense really improved. Showed up in the playoffs. Plays nearly every inning of every game. Zero-drama star in the prime of his career. Signed to a long-term contract. It’s good to have Austin Riley in Atlanta.
If you really wanted to, you could point to the fact that Riley didn’t do particularly well against four-seamers or sliders in 2023, and those are two pitches that he’s going to be attacked with more than any others going forward... but he crushed everything else so much that it didn’t really end up mattering, and he destroyed both of those pitch types in both 2021 and 2022, so there’s little reason to worry about his ability to mash them after just one so-so year against them.
Riley also had a few swing decision struggles early in the season, but they largely evaporated as he began to rake as the season went along, such that no one really remembered them because they weren’t really affecting his production, anyway.
It’s hard to even find any particularly rough games for Riley, such was his season. On May 7, he went 0-for-5 and booted a grounder, including making key outs in extra innings, but the Braves ended up winning anyway. On May 12, he hit into this double play, which helped the Braves get shut out in a close loss, but we’re really struggling to find bad moments here:
Expect more of the same from Riley in 2024. ZiPS sees another sterling season ahead with a 4.4 WAR and 132 OPS+, which actually seems a little low given how good his 2021-2023 stretch has been. Given what he’s done, it kind of seems like a 5 WAR season is reasonably likely, though Steamer also has his point estimate in the low 4 WAR range. If he hits another gear he could even grab a few MVP votes.