“It’s just how smooth he is,” Riley said. “I sit there and watch everything he does, from pregame routine to pre-pitch setup to just throwing the ball in between innings. To me, he’s one of the best. Anything I can try to learn from him, I do.”
Riley can continue to admire. But, if he’s not already there, he’s getting closer and closer to joining his company at the top of the class among third basemen. So say the numbers and so says an observer, albeit one with perhaps a bit of bias.
“It’s been a really fun thing for me to watch his growth and development as he’s made himself one of the premier players in baseball,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Thursday.
In a season where teammates Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson have garnered most of the team’s individual attention, and deservedly so, Riley has further established himself as a legitimate star. You could make a very easy case that he is the game’s preeminent player at his position, with his prime yet ahead of him.
Through Thursday, his 37 home runs ranked most among third basemen with at least 120 games at the position this season. He was first in slugging percentage (.519) and OPS (.865) and tied for third in RBIs (96), and he would have been first in batting average (.282) with one more hit.
“I definitely want to get to the 100-RBI mark,” Riley said. “That’s the goal for me.”
It is his third consecutive season with at least 30 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .270 batting average. This is high altitude. In the past 25 seasons (not including the shortened 2020 season), only three other players have matched that streak while playing at least 120 games at third base each season – Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Arenado. Jones is in the Hall of Fame, Arenado appears bound there and Rodriguez would be there if not for his chemical enhancement.
Further, he’s done this before his age-27 season. In the past 50 years, only three players have put together three such seasons before their age-27 season – Riley, Arenado and Rafael Devers – and Riley and Arenado are the only ones to accomplish it in three seasons in a row. That doesn’t mean Riley will surpass Jones or George Brett or Mike Schmidt, all-time greats at the position whose greatness lay in long-term production. But it does speak to consistent, high-level offense at a relatively early age. At the very least, he’s on the right track.
“I try to work hard, come in every day and be accountable and play the game the right way,” Riley said. “I try not to look too much on the statistical side. Just take an at-bat for what it’s worth and, depending on the situation, try to do what is called and see where I’m at at the end of the year.”
But for all of Riley’s production at the plate, when asked Thursday about personal career goals, the only one he offered was a Gold Glove. On Thursday, his boss made the case that he ought to be considered.
“Defensively, he’s as good as it gets, I think,” Snitker said of Riley. “That Gold Glove has kind of been entrenched with Nolan Arenado, and he’s a great, great player. Austin’s right there, I think.”
Riley isn’t quite ready to join Snitker’s campaign. He said that “I’ve got a ways to go.” But he is smoother in the field and more consistent. He is clearly proud of his work. Last year, Riley put his positioning under the microscope of assistant coach Ron Washington and the analytics staff. He said that they were able to watch his pre-pitch mechanics, his body reduced to a stick figure, compared with those of Arenado and Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes.
“It’s kind of cool,” Riley said.
Riley said he realized that, before the pitch, he hopped much higher in the air than Arenado and Hayes and also forward.
“And I think that kind of slows my first step down,” he said. “So really working on that has helped me get to balls a little bit more.”
Riley said that he wasn’t even aware of the movement until studying the comparison, but that now he can tell if, when a ball gets by him, it was because he had a flaw in his pre-pitch setup.
“(Washington) sees everything,” Riley said. “You can’t get anything by him.”
While defensive statistics are an evolving field, his improvement can be seen in a metric called Outs Above Average. He was tied for 38th (last among qualified third basemen) in 2020 at minus-5, tied for 34th in 2021 (minus-4), tied for 30th in 2022 (minus-6) and was tied for 15th after Thursday (2). Hayes led the majors at 17.
He may be primed for an impactful October. Through Thursday, he was hitting .307 and slugging .580 in September. He had similar numbers in September/October (.302, .517) before the 2021 postseason , when he hit .277 with two home runs and eight RBIs in 16 postseason games to help lift the Braves to the World Series title. In 2020 and 2022, down Septembers preceded weaker production in the postseason.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it, especially the way last year ended,” Riley said.
If he can contribute in the postseason the way he has to this point, flying under the radar may not be an option.