How Did Braves Star Austin Riley Get So Good at Defense?

For the past few seasons, the one flaw Braves fans could find with Austin Riley was his defense. Now, he's fixed it.

San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves
San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves / Alex Slitz/GettyImages
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From 2019-2022, Austin Riley was among the worst defensive 3B according to defensive metrics. While he certainly had his defenders, the general consensus among analytical fans was that Riley's defense was lacking.

However, in 2023, eye-test fans and analytic fans are finally on the same page. After a poor April, Riley has turned his season around defensively. But how bad was Riley's defense, and what's changed this season?

How bad was Austin Riley's defense?

Coming into the 2023 season, Riley had the defensive metrics split. While Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) believed he was an above-average defensive player, with 10 DRS in his career at 3B, UZR/150 and Outs Above Average (OAA) believed he was one of the worst defensive 3B in baseball.

From 2019-2022, Riley was tied with Max Muncy with the lowest UZR/150 and ranked second-to-last in OAA, with only Hunter Dozier ranking lower.

While there are certainly Braves fans and media who have always stood by Riley's defense, most Braves who track the metrics agree he hasn't been great.

This isn't to say he hasn't made great plays. He's made many in his time with Atlanta. Being a "bad" defensive player doesn't have to mean you're an incompetent fielder.

However, at season's end, for four straight seasons, the defensive metrics graded Riley as a solidly below-average player defensively. As much as Braves fans who defend Riley's defense wish, OAA wasn't just randomly generating numbers. What was going on?

As it turns out, Riley was having an interesting problem. He was fine at making plays he got to, meaning once the ball was in his glove, Riley would make the play. Getting to the ball was the issue.

There are plays like this single by Francisco Lindor or this double by David Peralta that are hit right at Austin that he can't field.

Then there are plays like this one that went as a double where Riley is right at the ball but still isn't able to make a play on it (and then somehow makes it worse).

However, a year later, these mistakes by Riley are no longer happening.