Image credit: Austin Riley (Photo by Mike Janes)
DURHAM, N.C. — On the surface, the only thing that went wrong for Austin Riley in 2018 was a knee injury that cost him roughly a month of the season after a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. Otherwise, the Braves’ top prospect got on base at higher clip (.360) and hit for more power (.522 slugging percentage) than he had in any season since his pro debut in 2015.
Those gaudy stats obscured something that was bugging Riley. He’d been getting beat by quality fastballs, and he wanted to find a way to fix the problem. The answer, after looking at film of his swing, was a subtle change that so far has paid off in a very loud way.
“It’s more of not (bringing the bat) straight down. It’s more trying to get on plane quicker and staying on plane all the way through the swing,” Riley said after launching his eighth home run of the season. “It’s not downward, it’s getting on plane (earlier) and then getting your bat through the zone.”
It’s not that Riley didn’t have the bat speed to catch up to high-velocity fastballs. Rather, he wasn’t making hard contact against those pitches, instead fouling them off or making weak contact. Together, Riley and Braves hitting coordinator Mike Brumley, Gwinnett hitting coach Bobby Magallanes and Atlanta hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, formed a plan.
The changes began toward the end of last season, when he was with Gwinnett, and continued throughout the offseason. Back at Triple-A, Riley has begun 2019 by blistering baseballs with regularity.
In addition to picking the brains of the coaches throughout the organization, Riley is also a big believer in the power of technology. He uses Rapsodo and TrackMan and other video technology as often as possible—”It’s facts,” he said, “and facts are always right”—to get insight into what’s going on with his swing.
That video analysis led to the revelation that, yes, he could get to mid-90s heat, but now he needed to start doing more with those pitches.
“When I am in the zone, I do a lot of damage,” he said. “Balls that are 95-plus, that’s what I was trying to figure out: Maybe putting 10 more balls (in play) that way, my average is going to jump up, I’m going to hit more home runs. I think that was where I saw that, along with Brumley and those guys.”
He’s clubbed 10 homers so far, including one shot in Charlotte that went an estimated 492 feet, which is nine fewer than he had in all of 2018. Included among that total are three multi-homer games, which is one fewer than he’d had in his previous 426 games as a pro.
The key, Riley is says, is in the hands. Rather than adjusting his bat path to increase his launch angle, he’s worked diligently to make sure his hands are in an ideal launch position as quickly as possible.
“It’s more of just getting the hands on plane and working them through the zone rather than getting my whole body on plane,” he said. “If I can just get my hands on plane and through the zone I can catch up to 96, even if I’m fooled a little bit.”
A perfect example of the benefits Riley has received from the changes came on Friday, when he was facing Durham righthander Oliver Drake late in the game. Drake brings two fastballs—a four-seamer and a split-finger—and Riley got caught out in front by a 2-2 splitter.
A year ago, that might have meant a strikeout. On Friday, with his bat in the zone longer, it meant a 110 mph missile over the left-field wall at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
“I was fooled by that split,” Riley said, “but I was able to catch up and stay through the zone. I was through the zone just a little bit (before the changes), now I’m through the zone with my barrel a lot more and it’s helped me a lot.”
With Josh Donaldson at third base and Freddie Freeman at first, the Braves appear set on the infield corners for 2019. Donaldson’s contract is up at the end of the season, however, when he’ll be 33 years old.
That creates an opening for Riley, who should be ready to slide to Atlanta and let his bat continue to do the talking on a much bigger stage.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Indians righthander James Karinchak has wowed scouts this season with an upper-90s fastball and hammer breaking ball that have allowed him to whiff 30 hitters in 12 innings this season between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. The heater plays up even more than its velocity because of deception and plane created by his delivery. He could make an appearance in the big leagues this season.
— Pirates infielder Rodolfo Castro, 19, is showing big power in his return to low Class A. The switch-hitter has 10 home runs this season after swatting 12 in all of 2018. He’s strongly built at 6 feet and 200 pounds, and on Saturday he swatted homers from both sides of the plate for the second time in his career. The first instance came on Aug. 1, 2017 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Castro displays above-average raw power in batting practice and a plus or better throwing arm.