The Atlanta Braves’ 22-15 start to the 2018 season has been bolstered by its young stars. Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Sean Newcomb, and Mike Soroka have all made contributions to NL East division-leaders.
When Soroka takes the mound with Albies at second and Acuna in left field the Braves field a lineup with the three youngest players in baseball.
A 21-year-old third baseman by the name of Austin Riley is looking to join the party.
“It’s great to see the guys having success up there. It gives me confidence that I can follow in their footsteps,” Riley said. “I want to get up there and see how I do. I want to help the Braves win games.”
Riley was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett from Double-A Mississippi and made his Stripers debut May 7th.
He went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts in his first game. Riley had gone 5-for-15 since and was on a six-game hitting streak heading into Saturday’s game.
“It’s all about adjustments,” said Riley, the 41st overall pick in the 2015 draft. “Each level you move up, the pitchers get better. You never stop learning in this game.”
It isn’t the first time that Riley has had to adapt. He started 1-for-25 with 15 strikeouts in the Gulf Coast League right after he was drafted in 2015.
“It was tough. I couldn’t get a hit,” Riley said. “People on Twitter were saying I was going to be a pitcher or that I wasn’t going to make it all. Eventually, I settled in and the hits started coming.”
After that season, he went to the Arizona Fall League where he caught the eye of Braves’ Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.
“It doesn’t take long to realize that kid is special,” Cox said. “He could hit the ball to all fields and moves well. He has a lot of power and is only getting stronger.”
Riley always had the power, but he needed to work the strikeouts and his defense at third base. Another Braves Hall of Famer would meet with Riley to work with him. Chipper Jones saw Riley at the following spring training and immediately saw what Cox saw.
“He has what they call light tower power,” Jones said. He could potentially be a clean-up hitter in Atlanta one day. That’s what we’re shooting for. So, I’m really trying to talk the mental side of hitting as opposed to the fundamentals because the fundamentals are there.”
Riley proved Jones correct on Sunday. In only his seventh game with the Stripers, he had three home runs, including a grand slam, and drove in eight — both tying team records.
Riley sat with Jones and talked about baseball, life, and hunting.
“My friends back home were amazed that I was talking to Chipper,” Riley said. “I was too. I told him that I was see-ing a lot more breaking ball strikes and 2-0 change-ups. He said ‘welcome to the 3-hole, son’ and from there I knew I had to change my approach.
Riley started to hunt for the fastball more. He became more selective about the offspeed pitches he would swing at.
“Chipper just told me some things that would make life simpler for me,” Riley said. “I went up with a better plan and I feel more confident.”
So far, it’s worked. Riley hit .333 with six home runs, a .394 on-base percentage and a .677 slugging percentage in 99 at-bats with Mississippi before being called up.
On the defensive side, Riley got to work with Braves third base coach Ron Washington during spring training. Washington carries a reputation as one of the best infield instructors in baseball. He is known throughout the sport for his early workouts with infielders.
“Wash grabbed me as soon as I showed up to Orlando and told me what time I needed to show up to get my work in,” Riley said. “He works so hard and is very meticulous.”
Washington noticed a flaw in Riley’s defense.
“I was rounding the ball instead of backhanding it,” Riley said. “He showed how that little pause could cost a team a hit or worse.”
Riley and Washington would get out each morning to run a drill. Washington would lay two towels on the ground and throw the ball back and forth to Riley.
“It forced me to use my hands,” Riley said. “First we’d start barehanded, then to the flat glove and end with a real glove. It doesn’t take long but using my hands makes it easier for me to backhand the ball. I’m more confident in myself.”
That seems to be working too. Riley had 20 errors and only turned nine double plays in 127 minor league games last season. He only has three errors in 35 games and has turned nine double plays.
“It’s those little things you pick up that build confidence,” Riley said. “I know I have to keep adding to my tool box if I want to help the big club win games.
By Nubyjas Wilborn