Sixteen games into his major league career, Austin Riley is growing increasingly comfortable in left field.
Riley had just begun manning left more regularly in the week prior to his promotion, which was prompted by an injury to outfielder Ender Inciarte. Riley, blocked at his natural third base spot by free-agent acquisition Josh Donaldson, didn’t have many fielding opportunities during his stint in the Triple-A outfield.
The 22-year-old hit .299/.377/.681 with 15 homers in 37 minor-league games. His success has bled into the majors, where he’s hitting .349 entering Sunday with eight homers. He’s played 14 games in left field opposed to two at third.
“(I’m feeling) A lot better (in left),” Riley said. “At first I didn’t get many balls, but as more balls were hit — there’s no ball that’s the same out there. It’s a learning curve. The balls in the light, me and (Ronald) Acuna have to communicate. I’ve just learned to let him take over and if he’s looking at me, I’m going to go get it. He’ll get everything else. But I’ve grown more and more comfortable.”
Riley has committed three errors, each in the outfield. Sabermetrics don’t grade him kindly, but the Braves weren’t expecting the second coming of Andruw Jones. They knew they’d be trading defense for offense.
There have been times it’s obvious Riley lacks natural instinct. He’s been mostly serviceable, and the team has happily let him take his lumps, hoping it pays off moving forward. Whatever happens with Donaldson next season — and make no mistake, Riley is a third baseman — it’s only beneficial for him to be versatile.
“I think he’s OK (defensively),” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s been fine out there. He moves around well, an athletic kid. There’s going to be things he’s going to learn on the fly. Back in the day, that’s what left fielders look like. He’s a lot better defensively than a lot of those guys who used to play left field in the National League.”
It helps that Riley has a lauded work ethic. He’s extensively trained with Eric Young, learning how to anticipate and play tougher balls. One point of emphasis: Taking off when a ball is in the air rather than debating where to go.
His footwork is much improved, by his own estimation. And certainly the defensive learn-as-you-go hasn’t impacted his offense, where he’s already emerged into one of the biggest threats of a deep lineup and leads the National League in homers since debuting.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Snitker said. “It’s fun when you see — especially a guy that you drafted, developed — comes up, and you pull for him because he’s such an outstanding young man. Very talented. They come up here and they do well, it makes you feel really good.”
Riley played his 17th game Sunday. For many, it feels like he just got here. Yet as new as the experience may be, he feels rather seasoned.
“I feel like I’ve been here forever,” he said, grinning and chuckling. “The games are longer. Everything is more drawn out as opposed to the minor leagues. I feel like I’ve been up forever. It’s gone about as good as I want it to. If there’s only one thing I could pick at it’d be the strikeouts. I think that’s evident. But overall I can’t complain.”
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