This Bow and Arrow-Wielding Rookie Is Breaking Through With His Bat

This Bow and Arrow-Wielding Rookie Is Breaking Through With His Bat

Austin Riley (No. 27) of the Atlanta Braves celebrates his three-run homer during the seventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 4, 2019.

SourceJoe Sargent/Getty

Why you should care

Because he’s closing Atlanta’s talent gap with MLB contenders.

In the vernacular of minor league baseball, Atlanta Braves prospect Austin Riley was “blocked” by veterans at his positions of third base and the outfield at the start of the 2019 season. Well, nobody blocks a big bat from a big league lineup. The scouts have a saying: “You can shake a prospect tree and nine gloves and one bat will fall out.” The bat is rare. You take the guy with the bat.

The 22-year-old Riley took over left field on May 15 and it doesn’t look like he’s going to give it back, even when veteran outfielder Ender Inciarte rejoins the roster. Through his first 19 games, Riley is hitting .320 with nine homers, 26 RBI and a stunning 1.069 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). The tear has stretched into three weeks, even though Riley is seeing more off-speed pitches in fastball counts. And he’s emerged as a pillar of the Braves’ young core that has made them a postseason contender and closed the talent gap with National League heavyweights like the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It’s unreal,” Riley says. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how things have gone. Just riding the wave and going to keep doing it.”

Riley is from Southaven, Mississippi, drives a truck and hunts — with a bow and arrow, a stealth weapon that suits his personality.

Ahead of this season, the Braves signed veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal for $23 million, seemingly dooming Riley to another season in the minors. Riley moved from third base to left field in Triple-A Gwinnett, but the Atlanta left fielder was Ronald Acuña Jr., the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year, and he wasn’t going anywhere.

So Riley just unblocked himself. Inciarte, a three-time Gold Glove winner, one of those gloves that falls out of the tree, injured his back and was placed on the disabled list. Acuña was moved to his natural position of center field, and here came Riley barging into the big leagues.

Except Riley doesn’t really barge in anywhere. He is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, a thumper, but he is mouse-quiet. The guy has a swing that can blow a bird off its flight path, but you better lean in when he speaks. “Um, Austin, sorry, can you repeat that please?”

You could stick this Southern gentleman’s ego in the toe of his cleat. He is from Southaven, Mississippi, drives a truck and hunts — with a bow and arrow, a stealthy weapon that suits his personality. On his off day recently, Riley and his wife went to the zoo. His favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla.

His father, Mike, taught Riley from an early age to stay off baseball’s roller coaster of emotions. It’s why the even disposition in his interviews is authentic. “Trying to be low-key, not one of those guys bouncing off the walls, take care of business, that’s how I have been taking responsibility for playing the game,” he says. “My dad gave me the compliments when I needed them, never gave me the big head, and I think that’s how I turned out today.”

Touki Toussaint, who has played with Riley the last four seasons in the minors and big leagues, recalls standing along the rail of the third-base dugout during a Single-A game in 2016 when Riley made an error. “Weird,” Riley said out loud.

“He didn’t stomp around, get mad, show everybody how upset he was,” Toussaint says. “He just said ‘weird.’ Austin will clown himself, joke about his mistakes. He can get serious, as you’re seeing now, but what I saw was a guy not full of himself.”

It would have been impossible for Riley to get full of himself in 2016. A first-round draft pick out of high school the year before, he made a whopping 30 errors on the Braves’ Single-A team in Rome, Georgia. His bat was decent (.271, 20 homers), but his glove was questioned.

Randy Ingle, the 2016 Rome Braves manager, who is now a coach in the Rockies system, says most of Riley’s errors came early that season. “He’s got good hands, he just had to use his legs and feet a little bit more,” Ingle says. “He went out early every day and worked on his footwork and angles and quickness.”

Riley’s demure personality helps define him as a player, says Damon Berryhill, the Braves manager at Triple-A Gwinnett, where Riley played in 2018 and started the 2019 season. Young hitters out of their groove will lash at pitches, trying to kick-start a hot streak. Riley bides his time, stays patient with himself and rediscovers his swing one pitch at a time.

“He’s the kind of kid that when he’s struggling, he’s going to mix in his walks, he’ll mix in a base hit. You’ll never see him where he gets to the point it’s a complete decline,” Berryhill says. “That’s huge for a guy that young. He’s always been kind of steady like that.”

There are two things about Riley’s approach at the plate to admire. He is a big dude, but he does not simply “sit and spin” and try to swing as hard as he can off his back foot, which usually means hooking balls foul down the left field line. Riley hits to all fields. He also lets the ball get deep on him so he sees it longer, then uses his fast hands to clobber it. In a May game against Washington, he managed to stay inside a high inside fastball and homered to center field.

The real measure of a player is responding to slumps. When it happens to Riley — and it will — he will know how to handle it. “My dad pounded it in my head: The game is a game of failure,” he says.

Riley has already had moments of failure on defense. He has committed three errors in left field and has trouble with those scorching, knuckling line drives hit right at him. Riley’s range is serviceable and, overall, he is merely adequate on defense, nothing more. But the bat outweighs the glove, and he will stay in left field until Donaldson moves on.

In his office after the Washington game in which Riley had three hits, including a two-run homer, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker chuckled when he recalled a quip by the late Jim Beauchamp, a former big leaguer and Braves coach.

“Beach would say, ‘Some are chosen,’” Snitker said. He smiled wide because the young “chosen” on his roster now include Acuña (21 years old), pitcher Mike Soroka (21) and Riley (22).

The Chosen, you know by now, are not blocked for long in the minor leagues.

Read more: Why this pitcher credits motivational speakers for his rise.

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