Let the Austin Riley All-Star campaign begin

Atlanta Braves' Austin Riley hits in the third inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Atlanta Braves' Austin Riley hits in the third inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

When third baseman Austin Riley hit a game-tying homer Tuesday in the eighth inning of the Braves’ eventual win over the Phillies, the Braves’ official Twitter account shared the video with a link to the All-Star ballot.

It wasn’t just a team promoting its player. Riley, by nearly every statistical measure, has assembled a legitimate case to be an All-Star third baseman this season – and perhaps even start the game.

Riley, still only 24, is hitting .313/.395/.536 with 11 homers, 27 RBIs and 32 runs scored. The eye test shows even greater growth, with Riley developing an impeccable feel for the strike zone. He’s shown discipline and patience that eluded him earlier in his career, and it’s made for unprecedented consistency. His average ranks No. 9 among qualified hitters in MLB. His on-base percentage is eighth in the majors, tied with teammate Ronald Acuna.

“He’s starting to become the player we all envisioned,” manager Brian Snitker said.

It was a slow start for Riley, who hit .182 (8-for-44) across his first 15 games. Panic among some fans already had set in. Riley, whose young career has been defined by hot and cold streaks, looked outmatched.

But Riley not only turned it around quickly, but he’s maintained production at a rate he hadn’t before. Since rebounding from his sluggish start, Riley has perhaps been the greatest producer on an offense that includes the reigning National League MVP (Freddie Freeman) and two of the sport’s most dynamic young stars (Acuna and Ozzie Albies).

In the past 42 games, Riley has hit .351/.430/.642 with 11 homers, 10 doubles, 26 RBIs and 28 runs scored. He’s added several timely plays in the field, as well.

“What he’s doing right now, the slugging, the getting on base, what he’s doing defensively, all-around,” starting pitcher Ian Anderson said. “It’s such an impressive game and fun to watch. He’s filled a role we needed. A guy who can hit for power and get on base and drive in runs. So with all that pressure that got added onto him, what he’s been able to do, it shows you the type of player and guy he is.”

Acuna is close to a lock to make the NL All-Star team. Yet no other Brave has a better case than Riley. Entering Wednesday, Riley’s 1.5 fWAR rates No. 8 among MLB third baseman, just ahead of San Diego’s Manny Machado. His fWAR trails only two NL regular third baseman in perennial superstar Nolan Arenado (1.8) with St. Louis and San Francisco’s resurgent Evan Longoria (1.6), who will miss the next four to six weeks with a shoulder sprain.

Note that the Cubs’ Kris Bryant has been logging a lot of time in the outfield lately, but he also ranks above Riley in fWAR. Nonetheless, being mentioned with established players such as Arenado and Bryant is a welcome development for the Braves’ youngster.

“It’s a goal, for sure, just to be categorized with players like that,” Riley said. “Whatever happens (with the All-Star selections) happens. Obviously, I feel like if I continue to work with my approach, plan, defensive work with (third base coach Ron Washington), then I think I’ll have a pretty good chance at some point. But those are aside from the point. We’re focused on getting above .500 and continuing to win ballgames.”

Riley is a large reason why the Braves have stayed afloat during an underwhelming start. They entered Wednesday at 29-29, hoping by night’s end to own a winning record for the first time this season.

Understandably, Riley will deflect attention from individual honors and more willingly discuss the team’s outlook. But there’s a growing chance Riley will have the chance to talk about himself in Denver in mid-July, fielding questions during his first All-Star experience.

“100 percent,” said Acuna when asked if Riley should be an All-Star. Anderson added: “It’s an All-Star year for (Riley). What he’s been able to do defensively, saving runs, making diving players. The consistency he’s found at the dish has been huge for our team. It seemed like a quiet three-hit night (Tuesday). We’ve come to expect that.”

It’s safe to say Riley’s All-Star bid is well underway.

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