Six short weeks into the 2019 season the Atlanta Braves found themselves floundering. The team had limped to a disappointing .500 record. Gold-Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte suffered an oblique injury and was sent to the injured list. Fortunately for the Braves, Austin Riley was tearing the cover off the ball in the minors and was ready to join the big league club. Riley’s addition to the team injected an enthusiasm into the team similar to last season when Ronald Acuña Jr. joined the team.
Austin Riley joined the Braves after swatting 10 home runs and driving in 23 runs in his last 13 games for Gwinnett. Most expected a regression as the 22-year-old tried to simultaneously figure out big league pitching and a new position. The call for tempered expectations turned out to be unnecessary. Riley has continued to hit the ball at a scorching pace.
After 19 big league games, Riley is hitting .320 with a 1.069 OPS. In addition, he has hit nine home runs and driven in 26 runs. He is the second-fastest player to reach 25 RBI in major league history since the stat was first recorded in 1920. The Braves will have some tough decisions to make when Inciarte is ready to return, but it is impossible to imagine a lineup that doesn’t include Riley at this point.
In addition to his production, Riley’s approach at the plate has also been refreshing. The rookie isn’t overthinking and comes to each at-bat with a simple “see ball, hit ball” mentality.
Austin Riley: “Me and my agent crack up because he’ll ask me, ‘Who did you hit the home run off of,’ and I have no clue. I just get up there and swing it.” https://t.co/ZBplq2qJQw
— 680 The Fan (@680TheFan) June 3, 2019
Transition to the Outfield
After the Braves signed Josh Donaldson, the talk in spring training was that Riley would get reps in the outfield. He began the season in Triple-A Gwinnett and played exclusively at the third base early on. The week before the Inciarte injury, Riley did play a few games in the outfield.
Acuña got the call-up last April and was immediately plugged into a starting role in left field. Riley followed suit after his May 15th promotion. The transition hasn’t been seamless but he hasn’t been a liability either. In seventeen games in left field, Riley has made three errors. In comparison, Acuña didn’t commit his third error until game 33 and finished the season with only five. Riley has taken some questionable routes on fly balls but overall has been serviceable while learning a new position at the highest level.
When Acuña was called up his energy, exuberance and playful spirit helped the Braves stay loose on the march to their first NL East title since 2013. Riley brings a different dynamic. He is steady and unflappable. His demeanor suggests that he will work through slumps and be a valuable contributor this season and for seasons to come.
It is unreasonable to expect Riley to keep up the torrid pace (48 HR, 138 RBI) that he is currently on. It is not unreasonable, however, for him to continue to be a major producer hitting in the middle of a potent offense. The reigning NL Rookie of the Month for May could join Acuña and give the Braves their second straight NL Rookie of Year.
Embed from Getty Images