Braves' slugging third baseman has legitimate shot at becoming NL MVP in 2024

50 bombs and an MVP for Austin Riley in 2024? It's more possible than you realize.

Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Four
Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Four / Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/GettyImages

Austin Riley can win National League MVP honors in 2024.

That statement isn't too preposterous, no matter which way you look at it. Action Network has dubbed Riley as tied for 10th in odds to win the award with San Diego's Manny Machado and Braves nemesis Pete Alonso at +2500.

Okay, I guess it's a bit of a long shot, but humor me for the next couple hundred words. Austin Riley has MVP potential. Am I actually going to put a wager on him? No. But that's more reflective of my choice to write about sports as a career than it is my belief in the sixth-year third baseman.

Oddly enough, this is probably the worst year since he broke out as one of the best-hitting third basemen in the league in 2021 to predict this.

2021 still stands as the best year of Riley's career and if you go by non-advanced statistics, it's not all that close. He had career highs in hits (179), RBI (107), batting average (.303), and OPS (.898).

For all you Fangraph-heads though, 2022 is actually his best year, with career highs in WRC+ (143), fWAR (5.6), and xwOBA (.378).

The point is, anyway that you want to paint it, 2023 was Austin's worst season in three years but it wasn't bad in any sense. He batted .281 with an.OPS of .861, posted the most strikeouts in his career, had 97 RBIs, and slugged 37 home runs. So you know, a season that most players would die for was considered regression for Riley.

Now, what merit is there behind predicting that Austin Riley will win MVP? The simple answer is, there isn't much merit at all. Predictions in sports are essentially just educated guesses, most prediction models that you see on Fangraphs are going to play it safe.

But you won't see any of that here, I'm going to play it very dumb and tell you. You see that year he had last year, the one that was still very good? Doesn't matter. We're going to the moon in 2024.

Riley got off to a slow start in 2023 and before June 21st, he had hit .260 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI in 72 games. After that date, during a series against the Reds, Riley hit .300 with 25 home runs and 62 RBI over 86 games.

Why is that date in June important? It's the date that Matt Olson officially moved into his forever home (at least for the 2023 season) in the cleanup spot, right behind Riley. And if you don't think there is a direct correlation between Riley's success and Major League Baseball's home run leader hitting behind him, I'm not sure what to tell you.

I'd wager to guess that Riley will hit third and Olson fourth this season, and if that's the case, there is all the reason to believe that Riley could end up with nearly 50 home runs, 120 RBI, an above .300 average, and an above .900 OPS.

If he reaches that, he'll at the very least be in the conversation, and in my opinion, there are only a few players around the league who can reach those types of numbers, and two of them reside in the same lineup.

Another reason Riley has a solid chance to win the MVP is his fielding. Like it or not, MVP voters do take stock of that in some cases. I mean, for a long while in 2023, there were the Mookie Betts played second base so that means he should win the MVP over a man who is literally breaking MLB record-truthers.

It's not the end all be all, as Ronald's MVP campaign proved, but it certainly can help, and Riley is only improving in that aspect. For the first time in 2023, his defensive fWAR was positive, at 3.2. Riley also believes that he could win a Gold Glove sooner than later.

Finally, when you open Riley's Baseball Savant page, you can't help but go, "Dang, this guy is good." And dang, Austin Riley is good.

His xwOBA, xSLG, average exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard-hit percentage were all in the top 11th percentile in 2023. If he can improve his whiff rate, K rate, and walk rate, which were all below 50%, everything else will improve, and if he improves much more, then he'll be in the thick of the MVP race.

So, Austin Riley can win the MVP in 2024 and I think the 50 home run number is well within reach for him. If he does that, we may be looking at back-to-back Braves and three different Braves players in the last five years with MVPs under their belts.

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