Two years ago, Ender Inciarte was an All-Star. Last year, he won his third consecutive Gold Glove. Today he's on the injured list with a bad back, and the latest report from the Braves was that he hadn't resumed, in manager Brian Snitker's words, "baseball stuff."
The good news: There’s no rush.
When Inciarte does return, he won’t be the Braves’ starting center fielder. He won’t be a starting anything. The Braves have a new outfield, and it’s not apt to change anytime soon. Nick Markakis, as ever, is in right field. Ronald Acuna, as we knew he would, has claimed center field. Left field is now the property of a 22-year-old third baseman.
Yes, we need to be careful. Not every rookie who arrives in the majors and hits everything he sees becomes Mike Trout. (There’s only one Mike Trout.) And we around here can cite cautionary tales: Jeff Francoeur, though his slide didn’t commence until he’d been a big-leaguer for a while; Jason Heyward, whose big swing came with many holes; even Ryan Klesko, who could hit it a mile but who never quite found a position. The league will always try to find a way to turn a young hitter’s strength against him. The best young hitters develop a Plan B and keep on hitting.
Austin Riley has been in the majors nine days. He's hitting .389 with an OPS of 1.254. He has five home runs and 12 RBIs. Over those nine games, his WAR value is 0.8. Over a 162-game season, that would be 14.4. In the long history of the Grand Old Game, no position player has mustered a 14.4 WAR. The all-time leader is Babe Ruth, with 14.1 in 1923. Even Trout, the ultimate WAR-lord, hasn't done better than 10.5.
The point being: Austin Riley won’t average 0.55 home runs per game. If he did that over 162 games, he’d wind up with 90, which would break Barry Bonds’ record by 17. Which isn’t to say that everybody watching, with the possible exception of Ender Inciarte, shouldn’t enjoy what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is special.
Over those nine games, Riley hasn't gone more than two in a row without a homer. He hasn't gone more than one in a row without an RBI. He has gone hitless once. He has had multiple hits four times. He has had multiple RBIs four times, including three apiece in the final two games in San Francisco. He tied Thursday's tilt with a two-run homer in the eighth. He won it with a single in the 13th. The Braves are 7-2 since he showed up.
If we’re looking for a flaw, it’s that he does strike out — 12 times in 36 at-bats, against only one walk. His BABIP — batting average on balls in play, which doesn’t count homers or whiffs — is .474. That’s not sustainable. (Christian Yelich’s BABIP is .305; Trout’s is .295.) It will be instructive to see how Riley fares over the weekend in St. Louis, the Cardinals having already seen him once. That said, when you’re hot, you’re hot. Austin Riley is molten lava.
We weren’t sure when he would make his Atlanta debut, especially after the Braves signed Josh Donaldson for $23 million to play third base. Riley’s 15 homers for Gwinnett made him the only choice to be summoned when Inciarte tweaked his back, even if Riley isn’t an outfielder by trade. But he has been more than passable in left, and there’s no chance he’ll sit anytime soon. Indeed, these nine games have been so outrageous that it’s possible to chart the Riley roster ripple effect.
Inciarte, once a key part of the Braves’ rebuild, will be demoted to late-inning defensive replacement on his return. Matt Joyce will probably wind up in Triple-A. Or maybe Johan Camargo, who hasn’t hit a lick since being re-relegated to utility duty, will ride the Gwinnett shuttle. Not sure the Braves would need four guys — Donaldson, Riley, Charlie Culberson and Camargo — who can play third base.
Beyond 2019, it’s unlikely Donaldson’s services will be required, especially at that price. (Not that he has been a bust. He has been more than OK.) Markakis will turn 36 in November, and the Braves hold a club option on him for next season. It’s possible Inciarte, who’ll be 29, could become the everyday right fielder, though he’ll have to hit better than he has lately.
But enough. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though great-looking rookies always have that effect. We see what’s happening and try to project what could happen. Not to apply the ol’ Bradley Jinx, but what could happen is that Austin Riley becomes a pillar of the National League’s next great team and we have the annual argument as to who’s the best Brave — the guy with initials A.R., or the guy with the initials R.A.?
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