Why missing Austin Riley is the biggest factor to the Braves recent struggles

With the Braves recent skid, it's clear Austin Riley is even more important than he seems.
Atlanta Braves v New York Mets
Atlanta Braves v New York Mets / Jim McIsaac/GettyImages

Since debuting in 2019, Austin Riley has been a mainstay of the Atlanta Braves’ lineup. For the past three seasons, he has hit .270+ with 30+ homeruns on a yearly basis, receiving MVP votes in all three years. His highest batting average came in 2021 with a .303 while his highest home run total came in 2022 with 38. There is no doubt that he is an important piece of the Braves' offense. However, when sandwiched between several stars his contributions can sometimes be overlooked.

Riley's injury has spelled trouble for the Braves

In the series against the Mets, the Braves fell victim to another injury scare when Austin Riley suffered an apparent injury on his side. Fortunately, it was nothing serious. He is expected to be back in the lineup sometime in the near future. But, had the circumstances been different, would the Braves still be a true contender without him?

Austin Riley, like a few of his star teammates, haven't performed up to his usual standards this season. So far, he is hitting .245 with 3 HR. However, before his injury, he showed some signs of improvement. In 2021, Riley led the Braves in HR, AVG, RBI, SLG, and OPS (on a team that included Freddie Freeman). In 2022, he led the team in HR and SLG.

Last year, Riley’s numbers were drowned out by amazing feats of baseball. Ronald Acuna Jr had staggering numbers in a historic 40-70 year, Matt Olson hit home runs at a Bonds-like rate, and let’s not forget Marcell Ozuna’s dominant performance. The only category Riley led his team in was strikeouts. But while the accomplishments of others might have shined brighter, Riley has still been a consistently great player. In 2023, he hit 37 HR with a .281 AVG. To add to his accolades, he has also developed into a plus defender. But while he was essential in previous years, is he still essential today?

Should the struggling bats of Acuña and Olson come around on a more consistent level, there is no doubt the Braves are a postseason team. Even as they stand today, there doesn’t seem to be much of a question on that. Even so, Riley seems to be an essential piece, the run-scoring glue between two segments of a deep and potent lineup.

While the other sluggers in the batting order can stand on their own, Riley did something they failed to do. In last year’s NLDS versus the Phillies, he posted a .353 AVG with 2 HR. The rest of the lineup: .161 with 1 HR. If we’re going to be fair in assessing his overall value on the team, then we must also note his mixed results when it comes to prior postseason matches, but his performance in last year’s NLDS indicates he can hit great pitching under pressure.

This is a very important commodity for any team in contention. If the Braves are going to succeed against great teams this fall, they will likely need Riley’s bat in the lineup. Austin Riley may no longer be the most intriguing player on a star-studded team, but he has cemented himself as a leader in the clubhouse and as the Atlanta Braves’ irreplaceable third baseman. And with the current sturggles of the Braves offense, they need him back now more than ever.

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