Braves’ Austin Riley earns first 30-homer season

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves third baseman Austin Riley comments on the "special" meaning of reaching benchmark in season.

PHOENIX — Braves third baseman Austin Riley achieved his first 30-homer season with his 424-foot two-run blast in Tuesday’s win over the Diamondbacks.

“That’s pretty cool to say (that I’m a 30-homer hitter), no doubt,” Riley said. “After last season and the way 2019 ended, you have your doubts and stuff. But to be able to put together a pretty good season so far, it’s special. We have other things on our mind - winning ballgames, trying to make this run deep — but other than that, it was cool.”

Indeed, the Braves are hitting their stride. They’ve won three in a row, with Riley playing a role in each victory. After six consecutive games without an extra-base hit – continuing a quiet September – Riley doubled Sunday, doubled three times Monday and put the Braves ahead early in a 6-1 victory Tuesday.

Riley is the sixth Braves third baseman to reach the 30-homer mark, joining Eddie Mathews (10 times), Jones (five times), Bob Horner (twice), Darrell Evans and Josh Donaldson. The latter was manning third base during Riley’s rookie season, when he spent most of his time in left field. He’s established himself as a third baseman now, and while his defense isn’t always popular with metrics, manager Brian Snitker and his teammates believe he’s become a sound defender.

There were questions with the streaky Riley across his first two seasons. It was easy to overlook that Riley had played only 131 games – not even a full season’s sample size – entering 2021. He hit .232 with a .737 OPS in that time, striking out 34% of the time.

But Riley is now a refined hitter, showing an approach most doubted he would develop. With 13 games remaining, Riley is hitting .300/.368/.523. His on-base percentage is up 80 points from his first two seasons combined. He’s trimmed his strikeout rate to 27%. His walk rate, at 8.4%, is well up from his 6.4% mark in his first two years.

And his latest milestone is a notable one. Riley, 24, is the youngest Braves third baseman to reach 30 homers since Hall of Famer Chipper Jones did so in 1996. He also looks like the long-awaited answer at that position, which was a revolving door since Jones’ retirement after the 2012 season.

“It’s something pretty special,” Snitker said of Riley reaching 30 home runs. “From where he started and what he’s been through, I feel like he has one more he wants to get: that 100 (RBIs). I’m really proud of him. You love that kid, to see how he’s hung in there and gave himself a chance. Look at the year he’s had. It’s really, really good. Big time.”

The slugger is six RBIs shy of 100. Riley’s 94 RBIs entered Wednesday fourth most in the National League, yet third on his own team behind outfielder Adam Duvall (107) and second baseman Ozzie Albies (97). He had 76 career RBIs before the season.

Riley still has a case for National League MVP, though he hasn’t generated the national conversation that players such as Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis have. Perhaps a flashy finish draws more votes Riley’s way, but it’s not something he’ll be thinking about.

“I don’t (look at that) at all,” he said. “I just come here every day and put in the work. Whatever happens happens. I’m thankful that we’re getting that momentum back to where we need to be and we’re winning ballgames. That’s my main focus.”

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