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What is going on with Austin Riley?

Austin Riley is struggling. Let’s break down why.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves
Austin Riley is having a rough go of it
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves as a team are overcoming injuries, and winning games. But, one of their stars is slumping. What is going on with Austin Riley?

From 2021-2022 Riley had a slash line of .288/.358/.887. During those two seasons neither one ended below a wRC+ of 136 (36.0 percent above league average). During this stretch he averaged 5.18 fWAR per 162 games.

This season, Austin Riley is sporting a slash line of .241/.333/.417. This is good for a wRC+ of 102, which is 40.0 percent lower than last year. If we look at fWAR, he is on pace for 1.24 fWAR per 162 games.

Let’s look at his bat, because that 40.0 percent drop-off in wRC+ is eye opening.

Right of the bat (no pun intended) you can see that Riley’s Batting Average of Ball In Play (BABIP) is lower than his career average, which could possibly mean he has had some misfortune. His .304 is his lowest in three years and .022 points lower than his career .326 BABIP.

It should be noted that the league average BABIP is .298 this season so far which is actually the highest since 2019. BABIP may be playing a role, but it is not the main cause of Riley’s struggles. In other words, you can’t just chalk this off as bad luck.

This is further evident by the fact that his .330 wOBA is actually higher than his xwOBA of .321, showing that he could actually be getting a bit lucky in that regard.

So, what seems to be the cause of the drop-off?

In 2022, Austin Riley was a Statcast machine. He was top 5.0 percent in MLB in average exit velocity, top 3.0 percent in xSLG, top 3.0 percent in xwOBA, and top 5.0 percent in hard hit percentage.

In 2023, his average exit velocity is top 42.0 percent, his xSLG is bottom 42.0 percent, his xwOBA is bottom 46.0 percent, and hard hit percentage is top 42.0 percent.

It is obviously a massive drop-off, all the while with his walk rate being the highest of his career at 12.2 percent. His highest up to this point was 8.2 percent in 2022. He is striking out more this year at 27.5 percent of the time in comparison to 24.2 in 2022.

Upon further review though, we can dig into it and see that his slight increase in strikeouts is not his main reason for his offensive decline.

The fastball

In 2022, Austin Riley obliterated the fastball. He had a .265 batting average, .282 xBA, .495 slugging, .555 xSLG, and xwOBA of .393.

This year has been a different story. He has a .255 batting average, .264 xBA, .327 slugging, .385 xSLG, and .340 xwOBA.

The biggest drop-off is slugging and xSLG. Slugging dropped from .495 to .327, and xSLG dropped from .555 to .385.

So, let’s explore why this is happening.

First if we look at his chase rate against fastballs, one may assume that he is chasing them outside the zone at a higher rate. Well, it turns out he is actually chasing fastballs outside of the zone at the lowest rate of his career.

Chase Rate by year

So, he obviously is not struggling with swinging at bad fastballs. But, if we look at his overall swing and miss rate as a whole, his swing and miss rate is the second highest of his career (as well as second highest on off-speed).

Swing and Miss by season

So, his whiff rate is much higher, but he is not chasing bad pitches? What gives? By process of elimination, you probably guessed it by now. He is swinging and missing at fastballs inside the strike zone at an alarming rate. In fact he is swinging and missing at fastballs in the zone at a rate of 22.1 percent, which is a large increase from his career best of 16.8 last season.

Swing and Miss inside the strikeout zone

Riley missing on the fastball appears to have resulted in an increase in strikeouts but that when he does make contact that the quality is not there. So far in 2023, his barrel percentage on the on fastballs, and breaking pitches for that matter, are the lowest of his career, and it has been a massive drop-off. Last year he had a 16.1 percent barrel percentage on fastballs, but in 2023 it has plummeted to 5.0 percent.

Barrel Percentage by season

He also has not been able to get a good launch angle on the fastball either. So far his launch angle on the fastball in 2023 has been eight degrees. Prior to this season, his lowest angle was ten degrees in 2020. For reference, in 2021-2022 when he broke out, he had a launch angle of fifteen degrees. For what it is worth, launch angle is not just a fastball issue either. He has a career low on breaking pitches as well.

This loss in launch angle, and loss in quality contact has also resulted in a massive jump in groundball rate. For his career, Austin Riley has a 38.2 percent groundball rate. In 2023, he has a 50.0 percent groundball rate. Even in a year with limited shifts, this has been hurting his output.

In Summary

In all actuality, Riley’s output has dropped across the board, on almost all pitch type, but fastballs and breaking pitches have seen the biggest drop-off.

The most interesting is that Riley is having issues with fastballs that are actually in the strike zone. He is having issues swinging and missing on them, and he is also having issues having quality contact on them. This has resulted in a large jump in groundballs and not being able to get the ball in the air. It is easy to see why his slugging has plummeted on the pitch.

Hopefully, he can make the adjustments needed and get back to having an MVP caliber bat.

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