Atlanta Braves Austin Riley: was he lucky or good in 2021?
Hitters in the Age of the Shift
As you scan the list of names on that first page of BABIP numbers, you’ll see a lot of players that have a solid reputation for hitting. Even with some who don’t necessarily hit well, there’s an evident reason for being on the list — so “luck” really isn’t a big factor overall.
Examples include Jazz Chisholm (45th), Myles Straw (22nd), and Cedric Mullins (39th). These guys have the speed to beat out some hits that might be routine outs for others.
But that’s not really the case for Riley. He generally got his hits the old-fashioned way: by punishing baseballs.
Riley was tied for 46th position in average exit velocity at 90.1 mph. He also ranked 17th in the majors in number of “barrels” — balls hit right on the sweet spot. His barrel percentage was 28th overall, and 36th in fangraph’s “Hard Hit” percentage.
All of these numbers contribute to a profile that suggests Riley hits the ball hard, and hard-hit balls will generate more base hits as a rule.
So that part isn’t about luck… it’s much more about the kind of quality contact Riley makes with the ball.
Except… that’s just the positive side of this equation.
I would be remiss if I ignored the other half of Riley’s profile.
BrooksBaseball.net characterized Riley’s 2021 performance at the plate as being “steady” against fastballs (roughly 57% of the pitches he saw) and “aggressive” against offspeed and breaking balls.
Overall, he has a relatively high likelihood to swing and miss against any pitch he sees — especially fastballs.
When he squares up a pitch… the ball goes far and the ball goes far quickly. But it’s that whiff rate which also contributes to this stat: after fangraphs revealed in that previous chart, he’s the 10th most likely in the sport to generate soft contact off a pitch.
So now we need to explain that in light of his BABIP score.