“There’s a lot going on; I’m just trying to take it all in,” Riley said. “You never know if you’ll get another one of these, so I’m just taking it in and enjoying it. It’s been great. It’s been crazy. Obviously late notice, I was trying to get everything together. I’m just happy I’m here.”
To call Riley a reserve doesn’t do his season justice. Third base is a crowded position – Manny Machado is starting for the National League – yet Riley is unquestionably near the top of the field.
Riley, the Braves’ first All-Star third baseman since Chipper Jones, is hitting .285/.348/.575 with 27 homers, 22 doubles, 61 RBIs and 55 runs scored. His 208 total bases lead the NL. His 3.5 fWAR is tied for 18th among all major leaguers. It ranks fifth among third basemen, behind Rafael Devers, Arenado, Machado and Jose Ramirez.
The 25-year-old Riley leads all third basemen in home runs (he has five more than Devers). He’s second in RBIs and hits, and third in doubles, slugging and OPS. Riley was seventh in MVP voting a year ago – he had a case to rank even better – and his encore season has been superb.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” said Braves lefty Max Fried, who’s played with Riley since 2016 in the minors.
It’s been a few years since Riley was the red-hot rookie in 2019. He played left field when he arrived in the majors due to Josh Donaldson’s presence at third. Riley carried the Braves’ offense in May 2019, homering eight times in his first 16 games and earning Rookie of the Month.
Despite his start, Riley had a rocky road to stardom. The strikeouts piled up. There were defensive lapses. There were injuries. Riley’s potential as a middle-of-the-order bat was evident, but he hadn’t put it together.
Riley admits that feels like it was a long time ago.
“I’m glad I’m not in the outfield anymore, but I think I learned a lot,” he said. “Just going through the struggles from the offensive side that year, I think I learned a lot about myself as a player. But, really, it was about learning where I fit in.”
Riley appeared in 80 games during his rookie season. He played in 51 during the truncated 2020 campaign. The past two years have been his only full seasons. And in that time, Riley is hitting .296 with a .907 OPS. He has 60 homers and 168 RBIs over those 252 games.
“I think just learning my swing and learning how to adjust to pitchers when they make the adjustments,” Riley said of his success. “In ‘19, whenever they made an adjustment, obviously I didn’t. I think now I’ve learned how to make those in-game adjustments and adjust day to day.”
Riley makes it sound simple, but he’s made a quantum leap few achieve. He’s improved his plate discipline and he’s hitting for average, a trait most didn’t expect him to develop (he hit .303 last season). Riley has an increasingly mature approach that’s rare with his power profile. He’s also improved defensively.
“What Austin did when he first came up, how hot he was at the beginning, and then he went through what he went through, then to come back and turn it around and turn into – in my opinion, he’s going to be a perennial All-Star now,” said Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, Riley’s former teammate.
“The way he carries himself. The way he plays every single day. How he controls the strike zone now. He’s hitting what, .290 with almost 30 homers? But to back it up. That’s the hardest thing to do. To be consistent and do it year in, year out. Now he’s putting together his second straight amazing season. I’m just so happy for him. Austin is just a wonderful person.”
Jones retired after the 2012 season. The Braves’ third-base spot was a rotating door afterward. There were moments of optimism – that Chris Johnson 2013 season, that spurt from Johan Camargo – but they couldn’t find a consistently capable third baseman. As Riley kept raking in the minors, there was hope he could be the guy.
He’s proven he is. The Braves have their long-term third baseman, already a World Series champion and now a deserving All-Star. Riley is an integral part of the Braves’ lineup for the foreseeable future.
Also like Jones, Riley is a Southerner to his core. He’s from Hernando, Miss., just outside Memphis. When asked if he enjoyed Los Angeles, Riley jokingly replied, “I’m from Mississippi.”
“I enjoy it,” Riley continued. “It’s not as humid as the South, so it has its perks. This is a pretty bangin’ spot to have an All-Star game.”