The Year of Atlanta Braves Prospect, Austin Riley
By Josh Brown
ROME, GA – Going into 2015 most organizations were scouting Austin Riley as a pitcher, but the Atlanta Braves had other plans. Brian Bridges and his scouting department didn’t see a pitcher in Austin Riley. They saw a power bat. So far they’ve been right.
Allow me to backup before delving into Austin’s 2016 campaign. Let’s rewind the clock to April 5, 2015.
It was the eve of Opening Day. I was at the QuickTrip in Cartersville, purchasing some Rooster Booster, when my phone blew up with tweets and text messages. It was as if the world had completely ended.
The Atlanta Braves had traded Craig Kimbrel to the San Diego Padres.
Austin Riley is not just a power bat in the lineup, he’s more than that. He’s a threat to opposing pitchers in crucial situations and he’s a game changer.
The Braves traded Kimbrel to the Padres in an effort to get the artist formerly known as B.J. off the books. Logistically it was a brilliant trade. John Coppolella used an overpriced novelty to shed some money and it worked. (Fun fact – Jim Johnson has a lower ERA than Craig Kimbrel this year.)
In return the Braves got outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, pitching prospect Matt Wisler and outfield prospect Jordan Paroubeck. They also got the 41st overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, perhaps the most valuable asset of the deal.
That pick turned into Austin Riley.
The Atlanta Braves drafted Austin Riley, not as a pitcher, but as a corner bat with slugging potential. I remember reading about it and thinking how interesting it was at the time and how savvy this decision could turn into for the Atlanta Braves.
To put how unconventional this draft decision was, here’s part of MLB Pipeline’s scouting report on Austin Riley in 2015:
After routinely topping out at 94 mph with his fastball this summer, Riley has operated at 88-92 and dipped as low as 84 this spring. His curveball still has good depth but has lost some power as well, and he needs to do a better job of selling his changeup. A good athlete for his size, he repeats his delivery and fills the strike zone.
Riley started his professional baseball career mid-2015 and slashed a combined .304/.389/.544 in Danville and Rome, including 12 home runs. While it was a small sample size, and his better numbers occurred in Danville, things looked bright. Then the beginning of 2016 happened.
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Coming into the 2016 season, Austin Riley and Rome’s young elite pitching staff were the talk of the town. But when two of Rome’s most promising stars came out of the gate struggling (Riley and Touki Toussaint), the Twitter arm-chair GMs crawled out of their caves and reminded us all why they are Twitter arm-chair GMs.
Both young prospects struggled immensely at the beginning of 2016. In April, Austin Riley slashed .244/.272/.419 with only two home runs. May was about the same story, and even worse in the slugging category as Riley slashed .247/.308/.330.
Many fans were questioning Riley and the decision the Braves had made to sign him and package him as this “promising slugger of the future.”
What many fans during the beginning of 2016 seemed to forget was the fact that Austin Riley was 19-years-old and for the first time in his life, he was a full-time third baseman.
When June came around we started seeing Austin Riley, with the help of Rome Braves hitting coach Bobby Moore, begin to figure things out and have smarter at-bats. He went from striking out a whole lot, to not as much and he began to shine with guys on base.
The Switch is Flipped
Austin Riley’s second half performance in 2016 writes itself.
He went from hitting 3 home runs and slashing .252/.299/.372 in the first half to hitting 17 homers and slashing .289/.348/.581 in the second half.
I’ve never seen such a complete reversal from first half to second half in a player. Along with watching rest of the championship team, it was a glorious thing to witness. It seemed that Austin was learning patience at the plate while also gaining the confidence he needed to realize what he was actually capable of doing.
Perhaps the thing that excites me most about Austin Riley is his ability to hit with runners in scoring position. Here in Rome, at the low-A level, we’ll often see unharnessed talent. Kids with great tools, but no consistency. Kids who have a difficult time performing under pressure. Kids who can strike you out, as long as no one’s on base.
As a 19-year-old during his first full season in professional baseball, Riley slashed .297/.343/.500 w/RISP. Austin Riley is not just a power bat in the lineup, he’s more than that. He’s a threat to opposing pitchers in crucial situations and he’s a game changer. At this level and at this age, to perform in this fashion is something special. If you begin hearing comparisons to Chipper Jones, those comparisons at this age might not be too far off.
The Stretch Run
The end of Rome’s historic season was especially great for Austin Riley. He entered the playoffs riding an incredible 19-game hitting streak in which he hit .361/.410/.708. During this 19-game ride, he went 26-for-72, with 7 doubles, 6 homers, 16 runs, 20 RBI, a .347 ISO and a 217 wRC+.
The young slugger went on to help Rome win their first championship since 2003 hitting two homers during the series against the much older, much more experienced Lakewood BlueClaws.
Rome’s 2016 squad certainly had a collective effort in their storybook turn-around season. Rome was 15 games under .500 in the first half and 16 games over .500 in the second half. Lots of players whom I had the pleasure of covering this season were involved. And Austin Riley was a very big part of it.
Austin Riley is a 19-year-old power-hitting third baseman who went from a .372 slugging percentage in the first half of 2016 to .581 in the second half, capped off with a 19-game hit streak in which he slugged .708.
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I think Austin Riley is just warming up and figuring out who he is on the diamond. We’ve only seen a glimpse of what he can be. Braves fans have a lot to be excited about across the farm system, especially Austin Riley.