Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
On May 15, 2019, Braves fans were thrilled when highly touted prospect Austin Riley made his MLB debut. In just his second at-bat, Riley, a former first round draft pick, smacked a long home run off of St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Michael Wacha. This was his first home run and hit as an MLB player, and fans everywhere assumed we were watching the next young Braves superstar making his presence known. For a while, he was proving it, as he went on to hit 18 home runs with 49 RBIs that year.
Fast forward to 2021 and, well, things are a bit different. Many have questioned Riley’s ability to be the Braves’ third baseman of the future, and some reports say that the Braves could be in the trade market for a guy like Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs. Most of the doubt with Riley has to do with the position he plays, third base. For over a decade and a half, Braves fans were spoiled with Hall of Famer Chipper Jones at the hot corner. Since Chipper’s retirement in 2012, the Braves have not found a star-caliber player to replace his production consistently. Now that Chipper is back with the Braves as a part-time hitting coach, I’m sure we will hear several comparisons between Riley and Jones.
While he does have home run potential every time he steps up to the plate, Riley too often ends up striking out. During his rookie year in 2019, he struck out 42.9% of his at-bats in July alone. In 2020, he struck out 49 times in 188 at-bats. If Austin is to find sustained success as a hitter, he must find a way to reduce his strikeouts and make contact with the ball. Even though he has proven he can hit long home runs, you don’t have to try every time you step up to bat, especially since the Braves are loaded with plenty of power hitters in the line-up.
Of course, there are a lot of things to look forward to with Austin Riley in 2021. Last year, he was able to improve his batting average to .239 from .226 the year prior. He also demonstrated his ability to get on base more. Despite a smaller number of at-bats last year, he managed to match his walk totals from 2019 with 16. This gave him an OBP (on-base percentage) of .301. They may seem insignificant, but Riley has shown his ability to improve his game. As mentioned earlier, Chipper Jones’s new role on the team could prove to be valuable to Austin. Who better to learn how to play third base from than one of the best to ever do it?
Even though he has had his struggles the past few seasons, I don’t think it’s time to count out Austin Riley just yet. He is a natural hitter with a tremendous upside. If he can put it all together, the Braves will have found their next third baseman for the next decade or longer.