Aug 16, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder Cameron Maybin (25) (in the pile) reacts with team mates after hitting a lead off walk off home run to defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks during the tenth inning at Turner Field. The Braves defeated the Diamondbacks 2-1 in ten innings. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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Austin Riley worked with Atlanta Braves minor league coaching to have a big second half in 2016. Can he continue in 2017?
The Atlanta Braves drafted Austin Riley out of high school in Mississippi with the 41st overall selection in 2015.
Riley was highly-regarded as a pitcher by many teams, and a number of teams had Riley higher-rated as a pitcher than a hitter, leading to his drafting surprising many draft pundits where the Braves selected him, especially as a third baseman.
The Braves sent Riley to their Gulf Coast League rookie team, where he showed very good power. After just 30 games, the Braves promoted Riley to Danville in the advanced rookie Appalachian League.
Combined between both levels, Riley came to the plate 252 times, hitting .304/.389/.544 with 12 home runs and a 26/65 BB/K ratio. His significant power led to Baseball Prospectus rating him as the #79 overall prospect after 2015.
Riley opened at low-A Rome in the South Atlantic League in 2016 and spent the entire season there. He initially struggled as he worked through issues with velocity and hard breaking stuff and made some adjustments to his swing and his positioning in the box.
Overall in the season, Riley hit .271/.324/.479 with 20 home runs and 39 doubles, posting a 39/147 BB/K ratio in 543 plate appearances. The more impressive thing was that from June 1 through the end of season, Riley hit .285/.343/.542 with 17 of his home runs and a 27/81 BB/K over 344 plate appearances.
Riley is listed at 6’3″ and 220 pounds. He could be a few pounds heavier than that even, which makes him a fairly large guy, even for a corner infield spot.
Contact (50) – Riley made two significant adjustments that allowed him to make more consistent contact in 2016. First, he adjusted his hand placement on the bat, actually choking up some on the handle. Second, he moved his positioning in the box farther back to give him a better chance to extend his arms.
Riley’s swing is long and while his bat speed within the zone is excellent, his load to the zone is an issue, and that is something that a lot of hitters have to overcome.
I do mention frequently that when David Ortiz came up, he had a similar issue with a long load in his swing. Ortiz spent hours watching video and studying players to learn every pitcher inside and out and know the game well.
The story goes that when a new member of the Red Sox came to the team, the player was astonished to hear Papi calling out pitch type and location (“fastball, low inside”) and noted he was right a tremendous amount. Curious, he charted the next game and found that Ortiz was right over 90% of the time.
That is exactly how Riley could take his hit tool and become an elite hitter along the lines of Ortiz, but it does require a lot of non-swing work.
Power (60) – Riley’s power is well-known, and frankly, bordering on legendary in prospect circles. I had one scout tell me that he scouted Riley in high school and you’d go to watch him just destroy the ball in practice and then rip off 90+ MPH pitches from the mound. “He was pure power personified.” was the quote I got.
The only thing really holding back Riley from a higher grade is accessing that power. Early in the season, he struggled with making that consistent contact, and his power numbers were not very positive at all, but as mentioned previously, when he made his adjustments, he hit 17 of his 20 home runs on the season.
Eye (45) – One of the major issues for Riley is that in his long swing, he struggles to make contact and his big swing frequently leads to big, big misses when he doesn’t contact the ball.
Riley’s strikeout rate calmed down plenty in 2016 compared to his first season, and after his adjustment in the box, he did bring down his strikeout rate to a very respectable 24% instead of the ~28% that he was facing before the changes.
Regardless, if he’s not taking walks, Riley’s rough contact skills will be even more exasperated.
Speed (45) – Riley does have more athleticism than he really has shown on the field, but when he gets going and can cut loose for an extended run, he does have some excellent speed.
His issue is that at his size, he takes a few steps getting going, and he really struggles with change of direction, so for safety reasons, he often won’t push the extra base unless he’s certain he can get there.
Defense (40) – So, this is where it’s most rough for Riley. He made some strides over 2015, but that’s like buying a car with 100,000 miles to replace your one with 300,000 miles. It’s still not a new car.
Riley did make some strides, but he’s still nowhere near a major league caliber third baseman. He struggles in almost all respects, outside of coming in on balls (a fun thing for Braves fan that the “chopper to Chipper” play is the one that he does excel in completing at the position).
That all said, I do think there’s enough athleticism and baseball smarts that Riley could handle a move to an outfield corner. His long-range speed would allow for handling a corner defensively fairly well, I would think. He may not be a 60 corner outfielder either, but he could at least make himself a 50 defender in a corner outfield spot.
Arm (60) – There is a reason that so many teams were interested in Riley as a pitcher. He has an absolute gun for an arm. He threw 90+ off the mound in high school, and you see that arm strength from third base.
The big issue for him at third is that he often leans too hard on his arm to make plays, and it leads to errors as he believes his strong arm can cover up poor reaction time by throwing even harder across the diamond.
I think if you move that arm into a corner outfield spot, he could use the strength of the arm to its true best use.
MLB Player Comp
One of the big breakthrough players of 2016 was Adam Duvall. If there was a guy that could physically pull off an Austin Riley impression.
At the plate, the guys are very similar as well. In fact, their strikeout to walk rates were nearly perfectly even last season, as were their ISO numbers.
When people look at Duvall’s line of .241/.297/.498 and be quite underwhelmed, but remember that’s a guy who hit 33 home runs.
The big difference is that Duvall is considered a positive defender in the outfield. While his range rated solid in 2016, the big reason why Duvall is regarded well as a defender has to do with his ability with his big arm in the outfield.
I do believe if Riley makes the move to the outfield, he has enough athleticism that he could play out there enough to let his arm play up to the point of being a positive.
Riley will likely open with high-A Florida in 2017. He’ll continue playing third this season most likely, but the question will remain whether he makes significant strides in his third professional season at the position or if it becomes time to entertain a move off of the position after this year.