Is It Time to Panic About Austin Riley?
31 games into the 2023 season, the Braves have the best record in baseball. The team even has two MVP candidates. However, Austin Riley is not one of those players. In fact, at the time of this writing, the star 3B has only contributed 0.1 more fWAR than backup outfielder, Kevin Pillar.
But is it too early for the Braves to start panicking over Riley's mediocre performance? What's wrong with Austin Riley, anyway?
It's not just Austin Riley's 2023
In July 2022, Austin Riley had a historic month. In 111 PAs, the slugger slashed .423/.459/.885, good for a 270 wRC+. He even tied Hank Aaron for most extra-base hits by a Braves player in a month.
He'd end up winning NL Player of the Month, and on August 1, the Braves rewarded him with a 10-year, $212 million contract extension.
Since the ink dried, however, the All-Star 3B has had a much different performance. Since August 1, 2022, Riley has only slashed .229/.331/.405, which is only good for a 105 wRC+. Among qualified hitters, this wRC+ ranks 77th out of 126, placing him behind hitters like Carlos Santana and Cody Bellinger. This season, his 104 wRC+ places him 93rd out of 174 qualified hitters.
Of course, a 105 wRC+ is a slightly above-league-average hitter. For players like New York Yankee Anthony Volpe or Arizona Diamondback Josh Rojas, a below-average wRC+ is acceptable because of their defensive value.
However, despite Riley having a wRC+ nine to 20 points higher, both Volpe and Rojas have provided their team over twice as much value than Riley has to the Braves.
Since 2022, Austin Riley has 13th worst OAA in MLB with -8. With an average bat and well below-average defense, the 2022 All-Star is currently on pace to finish the 2023 season with an fWAR below 2.0.
What Has Austin Riley Changed?
Is Riley's mediocre performance with the bat a product of bad luck or poor performance?
Across the entire 2022 season, Riley was one of the best hitters in baseball by xSLG, xwOBA, hard hit rate, barrel rate, as well as both average and max exit velocity. In these six categories, Riley was in the 95th percentile or better.
So far this season, he is only in the 90th percentile for max exit velocity, and not even in the 80th percentile for any other category.
There are two categories that have seen the most change. His barrel rate has dropped all the way from the 96th percentile down to the 46th percentile and his xBA has gone from the 84th percentile down to the 41st percentile. Essentially, he's not getting unlucky on offense.
Interestingly, it's not like there's been a huge approach shift by pitchers this season. He still sees roughly 50% fastballs (52.2% of the time in 2023 compared to 49.6% in 2022) and the breaking pitch breakdown is more or less the same. He also is being pitched the same by zone, meaning that pitchers haven't found a new area to exploit.
For some reason, however, Riley is getting beat on fastballs and getting beat on pitches lower in the zone. Last season, this was a home run for Riley.
This year, it's a ground out.
If pitchers aren't pitching him differently, then what's changed with Riley's approach?
Interestingly, the answer might be in his swing rate (or lack of swings). Overall, the 3B has cut his swing rate down from 51.6% to 45.1%. He swinging at less balls (31.6% in 2023 vs. 34.5% in 2022). Unfortunately, he's also swinging at less strikes (68.1% compared to 77.3% in 2022).
While this has come with an increase in his walk rate by 43.9% (up to 11.8% from 8.2% in 2022), it also has come with a 12.4% increase in strikeouts (27.2% this year vs. 24.2% last year).
When he does decide to swing, he's making worse contact, hitting grounders more often, and pulling the ball much more often.
So what does this all mean?
One explanation is that Riley came into the season looking to be more patient and it's actually hurt him offensively.
Coming into this season, Riley was a fastball killer. In 2021, his run value on fastballs was 14. In 2022, it was four. This year, he's hit .111 and slugged .222 on fastballs, coming out to a -6 run value. He's whiffing 33.3% of the time, up from 22.4% of the time.
An oversimplification of what's changed in Riley's approach is that he's looking to be more patient and read pitches better, but, as a result, he is now getting beat by the fastball as an approach. As a result, even when he does swing, he's not making the solid contact we've grown accustomed to.
Is it time to panic?
If there's one thing Austin Riley has consistently done since coming to the major leagues, it's make the adjustment. When he first debuted in 2019, sliders were one of his biggest enemies.
After hitting just .143 and slugging .321 against the pitch in 2019, the slugger gradually made adjustments and last season, he hit .254 and slugged .551 off the pitch. Coming into the 2023 season, only one batter had more success with the pitch over the previous three season.
If Riley's struggles persist by season's end, then there will (understandably) be concerns about the player who received the biggest contract in Braves history.
But for now, his approach should just be something to keep an eye on.