Image Copyright: John Amis, Associated Press
In a sense, Austin Riley is on the hot seat this year. On a Braves team that looks to win a World Series in the near future, there is no place for Austin Riley to continue struggling while slowly developing, as he is now in his third year in the league. With superstar third basemen Kris Bryant eligible for free agency at the end of this season and Jose Ramirez possibly on the trading block, it is do-or-die time for Austin Riley. Two weeks into the season, let’s take a look at how he has hit the ball so far.
On the surface, it appears as if Austin Riley has not lived up to his potential; batting with a slugging percentage of just .308, as he failed to log an extra-base hit until April 21. He has failed to consistently hit the ball hard, with an average exit velocity 8th percentile and a barrel percentage in the 12th percentile, per baseball savant. However, Riley has made vast improvements in his plate discipline, posting an OBP well above league average at .375 and a walk rate in the 72nd percentile, while also cutting down on his strikeouts, as he ranks in the 58th percentile in avoiding the punchout. With this statistic in mind, it seems bizarre that Riley’s xwOBA is only in the 33rd percentile; yet, up to this point in his career, he has not established himself as a league-average hitter.
So what exactly is the problem with Austin Riley? One may initially point to his lackluster hard-hit rate, and I would agree to a certain extent, but one must remember that, while his average exit velocity is quite low, he hits the ball hard at a rate closer to league average, with a hard-hit percentage in the 37th percentile. Instead of his exit velocity and hard-hit rate, I would like to bring attention to the decline in his average launch angle from over 20° his rookie year to just 11.5° this year. For context, the ideal ball is hit anywhere from 20-35°, and Austin simply is not getting that sort of loft on his swing. The exit velocity will come for Austin Riley, he is too strong for it not to, but if he does not correct his launch angle, he will not end up earning the extra-base hits and home runs that the Braves need out of him, as he will be limited to hitting hard ground balls. Riley has proved that he can improve his game, shown in his newfound ability to avoid strikeouts and draw walks. If Riley can continue his trend of self-correction by raising his launch angle and beginning to consistently make more solid contact with the ball, he will become a star in this league. If he cannot, he may be reduced to an afterthought within this Braves organization.