Austin Riley is currently in a slump, but he is talented enough to break out of it in the near future for the Braves.
3B Austin Riley, a young and talented third baseman for the Atlanta Braves, has been a key component of the team’s success in recent years. Known for his powerful swing and offensive prowess, Riley burst onto the scene with a promising rookie campaign in 2019. However, the later parts of 2022 and early 2023 seasons have witnessed Riley face a slump, struggling to find consistency at the plate. Braves fans, as always, stay true to their third baseman but are starting to raise an eyebrow at the continued and surprising adversity at the plate.
Riley’s Early Successes
Austin Riley’s journey to the major leagues began when the Atlanta Braves selected him in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft. He quickly climbed the ranks of the minor leagues, showcasing his raw power and offensive potential. The big bat out of a Mississippi high school made his much-anticipated MLB debut in May 2019, making an immediate impact with his impressive hitting and solid defense at third base. He finished his rookie season with a .226 batting average, 18 home runs, and 49 RBIs in just 80 games.
International league pitchers:
"He's not our problem anymore."
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) May 16, 2019
Despite his promising start, Riley’s performance at the plate took a downturn late in the 2022 season. After finishing seventh in MVP voting in 2021, he rode a hot first half and a good-not-great second half to a sixth-place finish last year. He struggled with his plate discipline to some extent, often chasing pitches out of the strike zone, resulting in a high strikeout rate and a decline in his overall offensive production. The 2023 season has brought similar challenges for the fifth-year starter, as he has been plagued by inconsistency and a lack of confidence at times. His whiff rate is currently in the 42nd percentile, down from the 30th last year, and his chase rate is sitting in the 40th percentile.
One notable aspect of Riley’s struggles has been his difficulty against breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Pitchers have adjusted to his aggressive approach, exploiting his weaknesses with off-speed offerings and breaking balls that induce swings and misses. Riley’s timing and pitch recognition have suffered as a result, leading to a decline in his contact rate and an increase in strikeouts. The righty is currently sitting at the lowest hard hit rate of his career with the second highest strikeout rate.
To address his slump, Riley has made mechanical adjustments to his swing and approach at the plate. He has been working closely with the Braves’ coaching staff to refine his mechanics, focusing on his balance, timing, and pitch recognition. Riley has begun to stand more upright as well as introduce a foot tap in order to maintain a better balance and flow in his swing. These adjustments aim to help him become more selective with his pitch selection and improve his ability to drive the ball consistently.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) February 14, 2023
Mental and Confidence Challenges
In addition to the physical aspects, Riley’s recent struggles may also be attributed to mental and confidence challenges. Slumps can take a toll on a player’s psyche, leading to a lack of confidence and overthinking at the plate. The pressure to perform and live up to expectations set forth by fans as well as the organization after his 10-year $212 million deal can get to a player. This offseason, Riley also had to change up his usual offseason routine that consists of rest and relaxation on his ranch hunting. He had a new baby, and it is possible the busy schedule of a new dad took time away from preparing for baseball season.
How Can Riley Overcome this Slump?
Riley’s recent struggles are not uncommon for young players in MLB. The league is known for its competitive nature and the adjustments pitchers make to exploit hitters’ weaknesses. However, many players have managed to bounce back from similar, and often worse, slumps and find success in the long run.
Calling Riley’s season a prolonged slump is a bit of an exaggeration, as he is merely playing below the elite level everyone knows he is capable of. He has a .721 OPS and six home runs, equating to a 94 OPS+. His slash line is down across the board, but his drop in slugging percentage is the biggest difference from last year. Once Riley finds his pitch, he will start hammering fastballs again.
To overcome his slump, Riley needs to remain patient and trust in his abilities. Continued work with the coaching staff to refine his mechanics and approach will be crucial. Riley will keep developing a more focused plate discipline, particularly against off-speed and breaking pitches. These are all things that will help the righty get back to his MVP-like self.
Furthermore, focusing on his mental game will be essential for Riley’s resurgence. Maintaining a positive mindset, will enable him to approach each at-bat with renewed vigor. Alex Anthopolous is a good judge of players, and number 27 will be back and better than ever. Riley should listen to Christopher Moltisanti of The Sopranos and “use a technique of positive visualization” at the plate.
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