Austin Riley doesn’t shy away from the talk that occasionally surrounds his bat.
There were high strikeout totals early in his first full season as he got beat inside by average velocity. Most of his production came from barreling off-speed away to right-center, a skill he was taught by his father at an early age that has carried into professional baseball.
Being able to take off-speed to the opposite field for power is a desirable trait for sluggers and is certainly a plus for Riley, but being able to catch up to average fastballs on the plate is a key to getting out of A-ball.
“You hear people talk about catching up to the fastball. I knew from the get-go that was the issue,” Riley said.
Work done to his swing around the All-Star break has helped Riley find that key.
The South Atlantic League All-Star break fell in mid-June. Before that stretch, Riley hit .252/.299/.372 with 18 doubles, three home runs, 17 walks and 86 strikeouts in 264 plate appearances. After the break, he hit .289/.348/.581 with 21 doubles, 17 home runs, 22 walks and 61 strikeouts in 279 plate appearances.
There’s the typical in-season development that often occurs for teenagers in their first full season. Riley said he was pitched much differently in Low-A compared to short-season Danville in the Appalachian League the year before.
“They try to beat me in, then soft away,” Riley said. “Trying to keep me on my toes showing they can come in there, then picking away. That’s about it. Last season in Danville, it’s kind of funny, I got majority fastballs away, and the majority of my home runs were opposite field.”
The 19-year-old made the adjustment of looking for fastballs inside and reacting to off-speed away. That helped cut down on his strikeouts by limiting whiffs on outside breaking balls.
But catching up to inside fastballs, or at least fighting them off for a more hittable pitch, was a different matter. Riley struggled making contact on low-90s velocity even on the plate, and it made him susceptible to basic sequencing. He went home over the break to clear his mind, returned fresh and ready to work with Rome’s coaching staff.
“I had the load, then it seemed at the last minute I was going for a little something extra,” he said. “The pitcher should supply the power, so I didn’t really need that. I had done it for so long that it was muscle memory, so half the time I didn’t know I was doing it. Just working on keeping them quiet, it’s really helped.”
Riley’s fix is difficult to pick up on from video. It’s subtle. You might find yourself squinting at the screen trying to find it. But cutting down the noise in his hands late in his load helped him catch more fastballs on the barrel and turned him into a more well-rounded hitter down the stretch.
It can be described as a double load. Riley brought his hands down slightly from a placement near his ear, then rolled them backward to reach a spot in which to fire. This forced his hands to travel a great distance from his deep load position to the strike zone. Combine this with average-at-best bat speed, and Riley was getting beat by fastballs.
The change cut down the double load by limiting some of the hand movement. It’s now more of a direct path to a spot to fire by limiting the late deep position, and his hands are getting to the zone slightly more efficiently. He’s also timing his hands with his lower half more consistently as a result. It’s not a huge change, but it’s just enough time saved to catch more fastballs while letting his natural strength do the work.
“I was trying to get into a repetition where (my hands) don’t move,” he said. “As the season progressed, they still move a little bit, but that’s a process and I think that has helped me a bunch. A lot of my home runs, I’m starting to pull the ball and that’s kind of new to me. A lot of those fastballs inside, I’m getting to them now. It’s helped tremendously.”
Riley acknowledged it’s a work in progress. His hands still occasionally drift backward and he’s caught fighting off hittable fastballs, but for a 19-year-old in his first full season, he’s showing aptitude by effectively making an adjustment. That’s positive news for the Atlanta Braves.
The book remains out on Riley even after the changes. One scout who saw Riley after the swing tweak still can’t pull the trigger on his hitting ability in the upper levels. Similar assessments were made early in the year. It’s understandable considering he could be a boom-or-bust type. The potential is a middle-of-the-order thumper with 30-plus homers and enough batting average to make it work. There’s also the potential of getting stuck in the upper levels of the minors based on his hit utility.
The book also remains out on his defense. Riley made strides at third base this year and has the arm to stay on the left side, but the glove is occasionally shaky and the range has caused some scouts to tag him a future first baseman.
Regardless of whether a scout is on the fence, Riley has impressed by making a necessary adjustment to improve his hitting ability while further developing his approach at the plate, all while adapting to pro ball’s full-season rigors. It looked less than ideal for Riley through early June, but his 2016 season turned into a positive and something to build on for next year.