Austin Riley raises Braves’ ceiling, belongs on 25-man roster
The Atlanta Braves finished off what projects to be one of the season’s toughest stretches — Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Brewers — with perhaps the team's best stretch of baseball in 2019. The team is now 7-2 since moving Ronald Acuña Jr. to leadoff, losing one of those two games in extra innings. The team outscored playoff-caliber opponents 32-16 in the first five games after calling up Austin Riley.
Now the most interesting short-term question remaining: Is Riley here for good?
Austin Riley makes the Braves a better team
Austin Riley requires no further introduction.
The 22-year-old prospect arrived in Atlanta as perhaps minor-league baseball’s hottest hitter — slugging 13 home runs in 18 games before getting his call to The Show — and, despite learning a new position on the fly and battling the nerves that inevitably come with playing at the highest level for the first time, he didn't slow down.
Riley became the first Atlanta player to collect at least eight hits in his first four games. After going hitless in his first start at third base on Sunday, he’s now hitting 121 percent above league average after smacking two homers and coming up an inch shy of a third. He's flashed the 70-grade raw power and an advanced approach. As Braves catcher Brian McCann put it, “He’s the real deal.”
Or if Riley’s teammates are too close to the action and only going off recent information, here’s a Hall of Fame third baseman who has worked with the former 41st overall draft pick throughout his minor-league climb.
“The swing was always going to be there. He’s always had light-tower power,” Chipper Jones said this week. “I’ve used Bob Horner as far as a Braves comp, but I think Troy Glaus. His ceiling is 40 homers. I think he’ll hit 40 homers in the big leagues at some point. I think he’ll be a better defender than Troy Glaus. … I think (Riley) is going to be a little bit more of a complete hitter. I think 40 homers and a respectable third base is where he’s at.”
The consensus opinion: Austin Riley immediately made the Atlanta Braves better.
Atlanta is making an offense-for-defense switch with Riley on the major-league roster. With three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte, who claimed the most outs above average in the Statcast era entering this season, on the injured list with lower back tightness, Riley is manning left field and Ronald Acuña Jr. is in center. The Inciarte-Acuña combination is unquestionably better defensively. (Acuña's defensive numbers are strange: Statcast tabs him with -3 outs above average, but he has six defensive runs saved on the season.) It's too early to examine Riley's defensive performance, particularly with the Braves (wisely) sending in defensive replacements in the late innings, but he's yet to look out of place in left field and he went "back to his roots" to spell Josh Donaldson at third base on Sunday.
"When you are 22 years, or 21 in my case, you will do anything to get your foot in the door. Anything," Jones said. "He’s got his foot in the door by proving at the Triple-A level that, ‘Hey, I can play left field and I can not be a detriment to the team. And I’m gonna knock in way more runs than I let in.’”
That's held true so far.
Riley extends manager Brian Snitker's lineup and makes the defending NL East champs more dangerous. The team is averaging 6.4 runs per game with him in the lineup, all coming against right-handed starters. With Inciarte slashing .257/.320/.370 since the start of last season — and he's hitting 35 percent below league average in 2019 — Riley raises both the floor and ceiling of Atlanta's offense. If he's anywhere near this player at 22 years old, he raises the ceiling of the team overall.
Atlanta's front office faces an interesting dilemma this week. Inciarte is scheduled to return from the 10-day injured list on May 25. The team could resort to a few rehab games in the minors, but he should be available soon. Riley took Inciarte's spot on the 25-man roster. If Riley is here to stay — he's proven he should be — how does the team clear space for its Gold Glove outfielder?
Charlie Culberson and Matt Joyce have hit extremely well in difficult reserve roles. Johan Camargo, who does have minor-league options, is struggling but provides more positional versatility than Inciarte. Could the team cut into its bullpen given the development of multi-inning options like Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Luke Jackson and Josh Tomlin? If and when Inciarte does return, what is his role? Starting center fielder? That's a tough sell given his replacement-level production to date and Atlanta's 1.018 outfield OPS through Riley's first five games. Riley is not in the majors to sit the bench. Inciarte could fit nicely into a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement/pinch-running role, but will he be content with that decision and where would that leave opportunities for Camargo, Culberson and Joyce? Josh Donaldson owns a .383 on-base percentage with 19 extra-base hits in 44 games. He's not going anywhere; besides, the whole point of this exercise is to get Donaldson and Riley in the same lineup.
(My best guess at a short-term solution to keep Riley in the starting lineup: Barring an injury sending another player to the injured list, the team utilizes one of Camargo's options to get his bat going again in Triple-A, positions Inciarte as a part-time starting outfielder and full-time defensive replacement and gives Culberson more playing time in the utility role.)
Austin Riley is not going to hit like this forever. Still, he's demonstrably upgraded Atlanta's roster, helped propel the team to its best stretch of the season and, at the very least, looks like he will hit for enough power to stay above league average. That's a step forward for the Braves.
Which Braves pitchers could benefit from throwing more sliders?
Luke Jackson personifies this league-wide shift more than any other Braves pitcher. The right-hander is enjoying his best season (54 ERA-, 67 FIP-) behind a spike in his slider usage — even earning himself an amusing nickname (“The Friendly Neighborhood Slider-man”) from his bullpen teammates. Jackson uses his slider more than anyone except Tampa Bay's Diego Castillo and Cincinnati's Robert Stephenson among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched this season. Slider usage is the simplest way of looking at Jackson’s evolution as a pitcher since Atlanta acquired him in a trade with the Rangers:
2017: 29.9 percent
2018: 42.2 percent
2019: 54.2 percent
Every pitcher is unique and what works out for Luke Jackson may not work out for another arm. (After all, Jackson is operating in the extremes.) But here are three Atlanta pitchers who could follow the league trend and explore throwing more sliders based on their major-league results to date.
Kyle Wright: The highly touted pitching prospects owns a highly touted slider. The pitch has garnered 60-grade future values or better and, according to Brooks Baseball, is “a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' sliders, generates a high number of swings and misses … and has some two-plane movement.”
Kyle Wright has thrown 68 major-league sliders this season. He has not allowed a single hit. Fourteen of those sliders have resulted in whiffs. Still, he’s only thrown it 23 percent of the time in the majors — just a few ticks above league average.
Wes Parsons: Atlanta’s spring training star has not replicated his breakout success at the major-league level, but he’s flashed a plus pitch: His hard slider. Opponents are slugging just .105 against Parsons’ slider this season. He threw six more in his 11 pitches against the Brewers — he’s now throwing the pitch 43.5 percent of the time in May — without giving up a hit.
Max Fried: The young left-hander has pitched like a top-of-the-rotation arm and he might not have even tapped into his full arsenal yet. Fried had not thrown a major-league slider before this season, but he’s now throwing it nearly 11 percent of the time with outstanding results. The 25-year-old is allowing a .174 slugging percentage on 88 sliders and his expected weighted on-base average — factoring in quality and amount of contact per Statcast — sits at just .210. Maybe it’s a pitch he wants to keep in his back pocket to work off his noted fastball-curveball combination, but it’s a good one.
Ozzie Albies moves down in lineup as he tries to figure out right-handed pitching
After flashing progress during spring training and the first month of the season — similar to his ridiculous April 2018, although pitchers are well aware of his scouting report by now — the 22-year-old second baseman climbed to the leadoff spot and performed well enough, hitting 12 percent above league average. However, his ongoing ownership of left-handed pitching masked his declining production against righties and manager Brian Snitker eventually made the switch from Albies to Ronald Acuña Jr.
Since the move, the 2018 All-Star has hit in the cleanup spot once, sixth in the order three times and settled at the tail end of the lineup since Austin Riley’s arrival. Atlanta has not faced a left-handed starter since the leadoff shakeup, which should alter where Albies hits given that he’s one of baseball’s 30 most dangerous bats against southpaws since Opening Day 2018. Right-handers continue to be a different story, though. Here are Albies’ splits, separating his numbers against right-handers into before-and-after snapshots since the April performance that propelled into the 2018 Midsummer Classic:
Career vs. LHP: .339/.369/.556, 145 wRC+
vs. RHP before May 1, 2018: .261/.325/.459, 104 wRC+
vs. RHP since May 1, 2018: .231/.287/.387. 79 wRC+
In other words, ever since Albies’ third full month in the majors he’s hitting 21 percent below league average against right-handers. League hitters have to face righties in roughly three-quarters of their plate appearances annually. This underscores an obvious growth area. (For the record, Albies could hit like this against right-handers for the rest of his career and he’ll still produce up to the level of his contract extension — the total value of the extension — within the first few years of his potential nine-year deal. It's a steal regardless.)
For a player with elite bat control, Albies is not known for his patience. He’s going to make contact. Even though his strikeout rate against righties is elevated in comparison to his work on the other side of the plate, it still ranks ahead of players like Mike Trout and Kris Bryant. Strikeouts are not Albies’ issue. In fact, he actually walks more while batting left-handed (7 percent vs. 4.6 percent) because he steps in the box looking to inflict maximum damage against southpaws — and he often does. Still, in terms of the amount of contact, Albies’ whiff rate doubles when right-handers are on the mound.
vs. RHP: 26 swing-and-miss pct.
vs. LHP: 13.1 swing-and-miss pct.
Those numbers are even worse when separating out breaking balls and off-speed pitches where Albies’ whiff rates, in-zone whiff rates, chase percentages and chase-and-miss rates (you get the picture) all rise considerably, even when compared to last season. He’s a fastball hitter through and through: Albies owns a .400+ weighted on-base average against fastballs from both sides of the plate. However, his strikeout rate against breaking balls from right-handers sits at 31.3 percent and he whiffs on those pitches nearly 40 percent of the time. If you think major-league pitchers, pitching coaches, catchers and scouting departments are not aware of this issue, think again: Righties are turning to breaking balls as their “put-away” pitch against Albies on one-third of his plate appearances.
Then there's the quality of contact problem.
Pitchers are better than ever. Great hitters miss great pitches all the time, but mistakes are punished. Damage matters, and Albies does damage against fastballs. But he’s carrying a .208 wOBA against right-handers’ breaking balls and a .229 wOBA against their off-speed stuff; for comparison, the lowest overall mark in baseball last season for a player with 300 or more plate appearances was Baltimore’s Chris Davis at .239.
Here’s the thing about Atlanta’s lineup featuring Austin Riley: If Ozzie Albies — left-handed warts and all — is your No. 8 hitter, the opposing pitcher is not likely to have a fun night. He has time to figure it out. But if the Braves’ electric infielder is going to tap into his sky-high potential, he will need to eventually solve pitchers he will see the majority of the time.