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Checking back in with Austin Riley

In May we did a deep dive on why Riley was struggling. Has he improved since then?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Atlanta Braves
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Riley just hit a dinger against the division rival Phillies to help the Atlanta Braves extend their lead in the division.

With him knocking one out of the park in a high leverage situation, what better time to check in on him to see if he has adjusted since we examined his struggles on May 3rd.

At the time, he was sporting a slash line of 241/.333/.417 which was good for a wRC+ of 102 (2.0 percent better than league average) and was on pace for 1.24 fWAR over 162 games.

Since then, his slash line is very similar. He is currently hitting .259/.323/.430, which equates to a 101 wRC+. His average and power is up, but his OBP is down. This has resulted in his wRC+ going down by one percentage point.

As far as fWAR goes, he is now on pace for 1.99 fWAR per 162 games played. So, we can see from his overall output, he has picked up the pace over the past seven weeks.

What do his metrics say?

Riley is maintaining around the same BABIP with a .305 as opposed to .304 in early May, which is interesting because his wRC+ has stayed consistent as well. Of course, BABIP is a very high level look and does not tell the whole story.

One area that has been encouraging is that in early May his wOBA of .330 was higher than his xwOBA of .321, showing that he actually had been a bit lucky. Today, the opposite is true. His wOBA is .325, but his xwOBA is .337, showing that he actually has been unlucky. To put the rise in xwOBA from .321 to .337 in perspective, his xwOBA was in the bottom 46.0 percent of MLB and is now in the top 37.0 percent.

This has been impacted by a few different areas, with one of them being average exit velocity. His EV has jumped from top 42.0 percent in MLB to top 22.0 percent in MLB. In seven weeks, a 20.0 percent jump is impressive.

His walk rate has dropped from 12.2 percent to 8.4, which is a big reason why his OBP has dropped, but at the same time his strikeout rate has dropped from 27.5 percent on May 3rd to 23.9 percent, which is the second lowest of his career, and his lowest since the COVID shortened season.

The Fastball

When we checked in on Riley on May 3rd, we pinpointed a major issue he was facing. He was seeing a massive drop-off in his production against the fastball.

He went from a .264 batting average, .283 xBA, .497 slugging, .559 xSLG, and xwOBA of .394 against the pitch in 2022 to a .255 batting average, .264 xBA, .327 slugging, .385 xSLG, and .340 xwOBA on May 3rd. Obviously, the drop-off in power was the biggest eye-opener.

It appears that Riley is getting back on track against the pitch. He now has a .250 batting average, .265 xBA, .368 slugging percentage, .428 xSLG, and .342 xwOBA on the pitch today.

His average is down a bit, but his slugging and xSLG are up .041 and .043 points respectively in the past seven weeks. He is been able to hit fastballs with more power.

When we checked in during the start of May, we saw that he was chasing fastballs at a career low, which was odd because he was struggling to hit them well. This is still the case up to this point. His rate is up a tick, but his 26.1 percent chase rate against fastballs is still the lowest of his career.

What we saw was that his swing and miss rate on fastballs was the second highest of his career even though he was not chasing them very often. What that meant was he was swinging and missing at fastballs inside the zone at an alarmingly high rate.

His overall swing and miss percentage on fastballs is now much closer to his career mark at 22.2 percent. We can see by the chart below that it no longer draws the eye as concerning.

Swing and miss percentage by season

Even without looking we can already make an educated guess that he is doing a better job of not swinging and missing at fastballs inside of the strike zone.

His swing and miss percentage inside the strike zone is not as good as last year when he had a career best 16.8 percent, but it has dropped from 22.1 percent to 20.1 percent in the past seven weeks.

We also saw a massive drop-off in barrel percentage against fastballs from 2022 till May of this season. It was an impressive 16.1 percent in 2022 and dropped all the way down to 5.0 percent. His barrel percentage is not nearly as good as it was last year, but it has almost doubled since May 3rd at 9.8 percent, which is much closer to on par with the 11.4 percent during his impressive 2021 season.

Barrel percentage by season

Along with an increase in barrel percentage, Riley has been able to increase his launch angle on fastballs from the lowest of his career (eight degrees) on May 3rd to a much more optimal twelve degrees, which has allowed for fewer groundballs as well. He did have a groundball rate of 50.0 percent, which has since decreased to 42.8 percent. It is still the highest of his career, but it is a step in the right direction.

In Summary

Austin Riley has yet to break out of his slump, but there are good signs. With his BABIP staying virtually the same, his xwOBA has increased a noticeable amount.

This is partly due to him being able to take steps in the right direction on fixing the issues he was having against fastballs. He is hitting them for better quality, as well as swinging and missing less inside of the strike zone.

If he continues the trends, it appears it is only a matter of time before he starts raising his wRC+ to a level a lot closer to what we are used to seeing from him.

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