Braves’ Austin Riley encouraged that 2020 will be ‘a lot better’

Austin Riley fields a grounder at third base during the first full squad workout Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla.
Austin Riley fields a grounder at third base during the first full squad workout Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Austin Riley knows what folks were saying last summer when his home runs slowed and his strikeouts soared.

“A lot of people were saying that I couldn’t hit the slider,” Riley said early Wednesday morning in the Braves’ clubhouse at CoolToday Park, “and to me that wasn’t the case.”

To him, the explanation was more nuanced.

“When pitches were in the zone, I was crushing them. I mean, I hit multiple home runs off sliders,” Riley said. “It was whenever they were throwing that strike-to-ball slider, which is what I call it, the one that starts as a strike and ends up a ball, I started putting so much focus on that I was missing the heater. It really wasn’t that I couldn’t hit the slider; it was that I was so focused on the bad slider I was missing the good stuff.”

Spring training statistics, positive or negative, always should be taken with a pile of salt, but it is encouraging to Riley and the Braves that he has struck out only three times in 19 Grapefruit League plate appearances. That's a more noteworthy development than his early .316 batting average (6-for-19) or even the long, loud home run he hit off the scoreboard well beyond left-center field in Tuesday's exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“The swing has been feeling really good,” Riley said.  “It’s super encouraging. The swing is as consistent as it’s ever been.”

Riley, 22, is locked in an apparently close competition with Johan Camargo, 26, for the Braves' starting third-base job after the departure of Josh Donaldson in free agency. Camargo also is off to a good start in exhibition games, hitting .389 (7-for-18). The third-base battle paused Wednesday, with neither Riley nor Camargo making the trip to Bradenton for a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Riley’s power is no revelation. He joined the Braves from Triple-A Gwinnett in mid-May last season to play left field, immediately exciting fans and teammates by hitting nine home runs in his first 18 games and 16 in his first 48. But he homered only twice in 99 big-league plate appearances after July 6.

He finished his first MLB season with a .226 batting average, 18 homers and 108 strikeouts in 297 plate appearances, including 30 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances during July.

“For me, I take a lot of positive out of it,” Riley said  Wednesday of his uneven 2019 season. “To go up and have the success I did (in May and June), that’s huge as far as when the failures do come, you’ve done that and know you do belong there and know your game is good enough to be there.

“But I also know that when pitchers make adjustments to you, you’ve got to make adjustments back to them. And I didn’t do that last season.”

He believes off-season adjustments to his stance, which he describes as being in “a more stable position,” and his approach are paying off in spring training and will carry over into the season.

“I feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself when things were going bad (last season), trying to get out of it, instead of just trusting myself,” Riley said. “Ultimately, I dug myself a deeper hole and couldn’t get out of it.

“There are a lot of things to learn from. I think this year is going to be a lot better. … I’m looking forward to it.”

There’s no question that pitchers again will test and retest him with what he calls strike-to-ball sliders until he proves he is a disciplined and discerning enough hitter to recognize and resist such offerings.

“So far this spring, what I have been going to is thinking a tunnel in the (strike) zone,” Riley said. “If pitches are in it, I’m going to be able to do my damage. But if something is not in it, the pitchers are so good that if they throw that pitch that starts as a strike and ends as a ball, you can’t do anything with it, so there’s no point in swinging at it. That’s kind of how I’m attacking it.”

Whether the season will begin with Riley as the Braves’ starting third baseman, or back at Gwinnett for another stint, will play out over the next three weeks.

“Obviously, you want to win the job,” Riley said, “but at the same time you can only do what you can control. Just let everything else unfold.”