Yesterday, the Braves called up Austin Riley, who we ranked second in their system and 33rd in our Top 100. He continued his blazing hot 2019, going 1-for-3 in his big league debut last night, including a home run that was hit 109 mph off the bat. He put up insane numbers at Triple-A in 37 games this year, hitting 15 homers and posting a 160 wRC+ with an unlucky .286 BABIP given his quality of contact.
I’ve been in to see him a few times this spring and captured a homer (102.1 mph off the bat, 32 degrees, 405.3 feet, a homer to straight-away center field) and an off-balance but well-struck double to the pull gap in glorious 1000 frames per second below. You can reference these swings (particularly the first) as an example of the actualized version of Riley’s swing from the mechanical journey I describe below.
Riley got on most clubs’ radar as a standout on arguably the best prep team in Mississippi. He was all over the showcase circuit but was a little thicker then and was arguably a better pitching prospect. He showed some starter traits, running his heater up to 95 mph at times, but having mostly average stuff with limited physical projection. In the spring, he started shaping up his frame, which has continued through his pro career as well. He looked like he had a shot to stick at third base and was getting more athletic, to the point where he was getting to his plus power in games more often.
Still, most clubs had him in as a pitcher and thought he’d go to Mississippi State (where he was also set to punt for the football team). The Braves were one of a handful of teams that aggressively tried to land Riley and saw him as hitter-only. He hit immediately upon being drafted, and slowly grew from 60 raw power into 70 raw while also getting quicker and becoming a consensus average defender at third base. While his stats have been standout every stop of his career, his deep hand load, which helps create the separation from his body that manufactures the power, was getting too deep and sometimes barring out his front arm, which was changing his path to the ball. He’s been working on consistently keeping that front arm flexed, which helps him maintain the athleticism and bat control in his swing to get around on hard stuff on his hands and have better plate coverage. Now that he has impact raw power, he only needs a mistake of two per game to hit it out to any part of the park.
(Full disclosure: I joined the Braves right after Riley was drafted and found that we were higher on him internally than the publications by a good bit until he raked in Double-A at the end of 2017, at the age of 20, which is somewhat remarkable for a non-consensus prep bat.)
In the 2016-2017 offseason, Eric wrote up Riley, reflecting his ongoing journey toward shoring up holes against velocity and maintaining quickness defensively:
Riley began the year struggling with any sort of velocity and then improved the timing of his footwork, quieted his hands and started hitting. Late in the year, he was turning on plus velocity. He has plus raw power (at least) and has improved his body composition since high school (when he was a heavy 230). But at just 19, with some general stiffness to his actions, Riley is pretty likely to kick over to first base as he matures. The adjustments he made last year were encouraging, but reports from late in the year indicate some vulnerability on the outer half, and it’s going to be difficult for him to clear the offensive bar at first base with his current contact profile. He was up to 94 on the mound in high school, so if he can have passable range and actions at third, the arm might keep him there for a little while.
In the 2017-2018 offseason, he jumped from a 40 FV ranked 28th in the system to a 50 FV ranked seventh in the system and 55th in the top 100. I wrote this in our report, which references the shift to the outfield that he made last week:
Riley has slimmed down and has a chance to stick at third base now, but his easy plus raw power and improving contact ability will play anywhere on the diamond, possibly as soon as this September in the big leagues. Riley has had some issues facing premium velocity and clearing his hands on hard inside pitches, but he made strides late in the season after some specific work in that area — a development that speaks to his coachability. Riley is deceptively quick and could play in the small right field in SunTrust Park if he can’t stick at third base, since the natural positional shift to first base would run into Freddie Freeman.
This past offseason, we ranked Riley second in the system behind only potential superstar Cristian Pache. That reports encapsulates the improvements we’ve seen in Riley over the years, but even we didn’t see this kind of start to his season coming:
Braves personnel rave about Riley’s makeup and the strides he has made defensively, now projecting him as an average defender at third base after a lot of work on his footwork and keeping his strong frame nimble. He has an easy plus arm and plus plus raw power along with the contact skills to avoid being a huge strikeout type. What sort of hitter Riley becomes is more a matter of choice for him, but we think he’ll end up in the .250 average, with an average OBP and plus game power, meaning 25 homers or so annually.
With Josh Donaldson on a one-year deal and the two possible outfield holes likely spoken for in the long-term (with Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte eventually out, and Drew Waters and Cristian Pache eventually in), it appears that Johan Camargo and Riley will battle it out for the long-term third base spot, with the other filling the super utility role that almost every contending club has at this point.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.