The Braves drafted Austin Riley in the first round in 2015 (41st overall) out of DeSoto Central HS in Southaven, Miss. 

Braves rookie Austin Riley’s incredible start is frying my brain

Honestly, I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around what rookie Austin Riley is doing for the Braves. My brain is wired to sneer at small samples of results, especially with baseball, a game that requires the longest view of them all. While others marvel at hot streaks, I’m waiting for things to even out so I can be more certain that what I’m seeing is real. 

Sometimes it’s no fun being a skeptic. It is a sound perspective when your job is to offer opinions for public scrutiny. But Riley is frying those circuits at the moment. 

I’m trying to do careful, cautious analysis, and he’s crushing it. He’s smashing skepticism and raking restraint. Riley’s bat is way ahead of my brain. 

It happened again Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. When Riley came to the plate in the seventh inning, I was contemplating writing about what his hot start really says about his MLB potential. My train of thought was interrupted by the crack of Riley’s bat and Chip Caray’s crescendo as the ball sailed over the right-field wall at PNC Park. 

That three-run shot put the Braves ahead for good in a 12-5 victory over the Pirates. It was Riley’s ninth home run in 18 games. He reached eight homers in fewer games than any Braves player, ever. Only one other MLB player has recorded 25 RBIs faster than Riley since that statistic became official in 1920. 

My first impulse is to dismiss those superlatives. You can manipulate end points and sample sizes to come up with any number of “records” like those. But then I realized it’s stupid to sweat small details like that when, no matter the comparisons used, Riley is having a sensational start to his MLB career. 

Waiting to see more from Riley is to miss out on what he’s doing now. Obviously Riley can’t keep this up (I won’t bore you with tired jokes about his home run pace). But I will stop worrying about that, start shutting off my rational brain and just enjoy Riley making a hard game look easy. 

I didn’t have a problem doing this when Ronald Acuna made his splash last summer. I wasn’t thinking about small sample size when Acuna had eight extra-base hits with three homers in his first 12 games. I viewed Acuna’s record four consecutive games with homers in August as evidence of his special talent, not a fluky hot streak. 

Part of the reason I’m more skeptical of Riley now than Acuna then is that the former’s start is much, much hotter than the latter. Acuna’s .320 batting, .358 on-base percentage and .600 slugging percentage through 12 games were excellent numbers but sustainable for star ballplayers. Only a handful of all-time greats could keep up Riley’s .324/.368/.732 pace over a significant period. 

Another factor in my different reactions to Riley and Acuna’s hot starts: I was convinced Acuna would be a star in the majors before he got there. Plenty of other people had the same opinion — he was baseball’s No. 1 prospect before 2018 — but it usually takes time. I figured Acuna would be an instant hit after I saw him in person at the 2017 All-Star Futures game and interviewed him beforehand. 

Everything about Acuna — swing, demeanor, speed, results — signaled can’t miss. That’s how it has turned out. Acuna was voted NL Rookie of the Year. The Braves were convinced enough to sign him to a groundbreaking contract for a player with so little MLB experience. Now Acuna is on his way to another good year.

I don’t have the similar feelings about Riley being a sure thing, even though he’s no slouch as a prospect. Before this season Baseball America ranked Riley No. 22 overall, Baseball Prospectus had him No. 30 and rated him No. 38. Riley was good at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2018, and this year he clubbed 15 homers in 37 games there, including 13 over an 18-game stretch. 

Riley has continued his surge in the majors. He’s been so good there is zero chance he’s sent back to Gwinnett when Ender Inciarte is activated from the injured list. Riley has been so hot that it’s difficult to reconcile what I see him doing with what I know about the high failure rate for top prospects, small sample sizes and all the other data that say to be skeptical about his true ability as a big leaguer. 

So, my plan is to stop trying to make sense of it. It’s been fun watching Riley bash the ball every other day, and I’ll take it for as long as it lasts. I still don’t know how good Riley will turn out to be, but I can appreciate what he’s doing now.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.