The 2021 season was magical for many reasons, none more incredible of course than the Braves World Series win in October. But perhaps just as impressive was the night and day difference in performance by third baseman Austin Riley, who went from a below-replacement-level player during the shortened 2020 campaign to a bonafide MVP candidate.
No matter what stat you look at, the numbers are nearly unrecognizable for Riley. From a .239 AVG in ’20 to a .303 in 2021, an 88 wRC+ to a 135, which as a result, allowed him to go from -0.2 WAR to 4.2. I know the ’20 season was just Riley’s second year in the majors, and of course that was a weird one for everyone, but it usually takes at least 2-3 seasons for a player to make those kinds of improvements with the bat. You very rarely see such a drastic change like that in such a short time.
Which brings us to the upcoming regular season, a one in which the Braves third base position is – unlike last year – expected to actually be a strength instead of a weakness, ranking tenth in all of baseball, per FanGraphs recent positional power rankings. And it’s all because of Riley.
Many believe he could have an even better year in 2022, with an expectation that his defense has finally started to come around. Riley already finished within the top five among MLB third basemen in things like wRC+ and WAR; he did that last season. If his glove evolves into something around average (per defensive metrics) in 2022, and of course his offensive numbers hold, there’s a chance Riley pushes into the top three and joins the conversation as one of the best in the game at the hot corner. Wouldn’t that be something?
It’s all happening so fast. But the Braves should probably start thinking about an extension in the near future. Riley is just now entering his arbitration years, but as a Super 2, after this season he’ll play three more years under team control. That’s good for Atlanta, but at this rate Riley’s arb salary will most likely reach double-digits by 2023, pushing his stock as a potential free agent following the 2025 season even higher. Riley asked for $4.2 million in arbitration this offseason, though was offered $3.95 million, meaning he and the Braves will head to salary arbitration hearings.
Isn’t it crazy? Just a year ago many were questioning whether Riley was for real, whether he was actually capable of becoming a key cog in a major league lineup. And now the guy is coming off a World Series season in which he finished seventh in the NL MVP vote and helped power Atlanta’s offense by slugging 33 home runs and 107 RBI. It’s never smart to go all in on a player after just one killer season, but maybe this should be an exception. One thing’s for sure, another year like last year for him, and it could be Riley replacing Freddie Freeman as the homegrown franchise player… not Matt Olson.