Streaky hitters have been around since baseball’s inception. There’s plenty in today’s game: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Nicholas Castellanos are prime examples. These guys will go on tears, smashing homeruns before being mired in a seemingly endless slump.
But Austin Riley may be the streakiest of them all.
Ranked 22nd in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects prior to the 2019 season, Riley had hopes for a call-up that year. After slugging .603 in 47 games in the Atlanta Braves minor league system, he finally earned his trip to the show in May.
He immediately launched a towering homerun to left center in his first game.
What occurred next was an outstanding rookie month. In the next 15 games, Riley batted .356/.397/.746 for a monstrous 1.143 OPS. He cruised to the Rookie of the Month Award.
He was to be the Braves’ answer to Mets rookie Pete Alonso. Behind Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Josh Donaldson, the Braves would have the best offense in the league.
But then his numbers plummeted. He slowed to a .778 OPS in June. Not great, but he’s a rookie, so that’s to be expected. But then the OPS fell further to an unacceptable .480 in July. Some injuries in August and a .454 OPS in September led the Braves to leave him entirely off their postseason roster.
Riley’s struggles with the breaking ball, particularly the slider, led to this late second half collapse. According to Baseball Savant, Riley had a slugging percentage of just .304 and .182 in July and September on breaking pitches, respectively. Too many of his at-bats ended after three flailing swings at sliders.
Still, high hopes were in place for the shortened 2020 season. A slow start in July was met with a solid August, with an .875 OPS. Then he followed it up with a measly .669 OPS in September.
This inconsistency derived from a complete switch of the pitches Riley hit. He experienced some improvement against breaking balls, hitting six of his eight home runs off those pitches. This time, however, the fastball beat him. He slugged just .356 on those pitches. But even worse was the off-speed. In 2020, Riley saw 100 off-speed pitches. He managed one single and one homer.
It’s 2021, and seemingly nothing has changed.
Through his first 15 games, Riley batted .182 with a .456 OPS. He placed second to last out of all third baseman in MLB in wRC+, with a measley 33. Then, on April 17 against the Yankees, he lined a single to right. Later that game, he had perhaps the best plate appearance of his career. He fell down 0-2 against Yankee fireballer Aroldis Chapman and he battled back, taking and fouling off high fastballs and sliders to draw a walk. The next day, he hit his first home run of the season, an opposite field shot into the infamous Yankee Stadium short porch.
Riley was back.
Since then, Riley paces all third baseman with a 223 wRC+. He’s slashed an absurd .410/.529/.692 in 13 games.
So what happened? How does Riley go from the worst third baseman in the league to the best in a span of one game?
Clearly his most recent numbers stem in part from an unsustainable .520 BABIP. But some extreme luck doesn’t explain this massive reversal. Riley’s numbers started to improve because he started to hit the ball in the air.
This graph clearly shows that Riley finds success when he keeps the ball off the ground. His OPS and GB% have an almost perfect inverse relationship.
Riley also finds success when he hits the ball to all fields.
Riley’s OPS has experienced a massive jump when he hits the ball the opposite way.
Here’s where things start to get weird. The highest batting averages in baseball come from line drives. But Riley has found more success hitting more fly balls.
This combination of hitting has led Riley to post some of the best numbers in the league not just including third basemen, but overall.
In 2019, Riley hammered the fastball but struggled with breaking balls and off-speed. In 2020, he hit breaking balls but missed on fastballs and especially off-speed pitches. So what do you think that Riley is hitting in 2021?
If you guessed off-speed, you’d be correct.
Riley performed another 180 degree turn and is now slugging .933 on 40 off-speed pitches this year. His slugging on fastballs and breaking balls both sit below .410.
So we’ve seen Riley have the ability to hit every type of pitch with authority. But Riley is a rollercoaster. He knows he needs to hit the ball in the air and to the opposite field. But how long can he do it for? How long until he’s back at the bottom of the third baseman wRC+ leaderboard?
Only time will tell if Riley can find that consistency. If he can, he could be one of the best third basemen in MLB.