A vital part of the Atlanta Braves Championship team flew under the radar for most of the 2021 regular season. Austin Riley was not one of the three players representing the Atlanta Braves at the 2021 All-Star Game nor one of the many mid-season trade acquisitions that helped remake an outfield decimated by injuries. But you are here for one question: are Austin Riley Cards a good investment?
What Riley was, however, was as good at creating runs as Freddie Freeman was this season. He’s not the most popular player on the team, but he was one of the most valuable players. He might be underappreciated right now, but I don’t think that will last long. After a breakout season in 2021, Riley is someone I’d consider for investment.
After filling a utility role in 2019 and playing 51 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Riley settled into his role as the Braves’ third baseman in his first full season in the big leagues.
For a while, there were questions about what position Riley would fill. In high school, he played shortstop and pitched while also playing for the school’s football team.
When teams scouted the prospect, most rated him higher as a pitcher than a position player. The high school senior’s fastball touched 94 mph, and his curveball impressed scouts, but Riley ultimately decided he wanted to hit and play every day. So when the Braves drafted Riley in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft, he turned down a commitment to Mississippi State to head straight for professional baseball.
Riley wasn’t one of the most prominent prospects entering the 2015 MLB Draft. In the eyes of most teams, the prospect profiled as a pitcher. However, the Braves were singularly enthralled with his slugging potential. They were all-in on Riley as a hitter and worried other teams would catch on. So the Braves were ecstatic when Riley was still available at No. 41.
One scout high on Riley recently told MLB.com that he didn’t realize the magnitude of selecting Riley in the first round was at the time: “I didn’t realize how gutsy a pick it was at the time. Looking back, it was a real gutsy call. Our phones started lighting up when we announced him at third. Most scouts now like to say they liked him as a hitter, too. Some did, but they didn’t take him.”
Riley didn’t crack Baseball America or MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list until 2018. By that point, he had played three seasons in the minor leagues and hit a combined .278 with a .820 OPS. Riley had back-to-back seasons of 20 home runs as a 19- and 20-year-old in Single and Double-A. He continued to hit well in 2018, earning a promotion to Triple-A mid-way through the season.
Riley had only ever played third base in professional baseball. Still, when he continued to dominate minor league pitching in 2019, the Braves requested he gain experience in the outfield if a spot opened up with the big league club. After just nine games in left field, the Braves needed someone to replace an injured outfielder. Riley just started learning the position, but the Braves were so confident in his offensive abilities that they called him up to the big leagues.
When Riley made his major league debut on May 15, 2019, he did so with a bang. After a strikeout in his first at-bat, he led off the fourth inning and faced Cardinals’ pitcher Michael Wacha for the second time. Riley jumped on a high fastball and sent it 438 ft. to left field for his first MLB hit and a home run.
His first month in the big leagues was a successful start. He held a .298 batting average and .964 OPS, thanks mainly to his 11 home runs in his first 30 games. Riley did, however, strike out 41 and walk only four times during that stretch. It was the first sign of plate discipline concerns for the young slugger. Riley scuffled over his next 36 games before a knee injury sidelined him for a month. When he returned mid-way through September, the slump persisted. In his final 50 games, Riley struck out 67 times and walked only 12 times. During that stretch, he hit just .170 with a dismal .583 OPS.
If you look a little deeper to figure out why Riley struggled, you’ll notice a few things. First, Riley swings a lot, both at pitches in and out of the strike zone. During his rookie year, Riley’s O-Swing% (percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone) was 41.3%, far more than the 31.6% league average. He also swung at pitches inside the strike zone (Z-swing%) at an astronomically high rate of 81.2%, whereas the league average sat at 68.5%. If you couple this with his free-swinging style, Riley’s contact rate was very low.
These swing and contact numbers remained consistent throughout both splits mentioned above, so why was there a drastic production rate difference?
Once teams got a look at Riley over his first stretch in the big leagues, they made a few adjustments. First, Riley frequently swung at the first pitch, 43.8% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 29.2%. As a result, pitchers adjusted, throwing fewer first-pitch strikes after those first 30 games.
Additionally, opposing pitchers started throwing fewer pitches in the zone in all counts, knowing Riley would regularly chase pitches and swing and miss. So although Riley’s swing percentages didn’t fluctuate too much, he saw fewer strikes and made poorer contact in the latter part of his rookie year.
We can’t put too much weight on Riley’s 51 games in 2020 because the season was condensed because of the pandemic, but there were some minor adjustments to think about going into 2021. While his surface numbers didn’t improve in 2020, he slashed his strikeout rate significantly — 36.4% in 2019 compared to 23.8% in 2020.
According to FanGraphs, no player in baseball reduced their strikeout rate from 2019 to 2020 more than Riley did. In addition, he was making more contact and, even though the batted ball quality wasn’t where he would have liked, the improvements in plate discipline were good signs in 2020.
Riley’s transformation into a budding star had a lot to do with learning the mental side of baseball. He’d been working with Braves’ minor league hitting coordinator Mike Brumley over the past few seasons, according to The Athletic’s David O’Brien and Keith Law.
All the work Riley had been doing with Brumley came together in 2021: adjusting his stance, keeping his swing fluid, and staying calm and confident at the plate. Early in his career, Riley told Law, he sat on a single pitch and attacked it if he got that pitch. Now, he says, he’s worked on processing at-bats and recognizing pitches based on spin and location instead of pigeonholing himself to one pitch.
Two vulnerabilities for Riley early on were high fastballs and sliders low and away. He says he’d recognize the pitch as a strike and start his swing, but by the time the pitch got to the plate, it was out of the zone. From his rookie year to his fantastic 2021 season, Riley is an entirely different hitter. He’s been able to lay off high fastballs and refrain from chasing breaking pitches away. He’s being more selective, choosing to swing at pitches he knows he can do damage with, and making hard and high-quality contact that produces favorable results.
These adjustments are not easy. Batters have only milliseconds to react to the pitch, recognize speed and spin, decipher where it will end up, decide whether to swing, then actually start their swing. Law, who worked as a scout for the Blue Jays and has written about prospects for two decades, said earlier this year that he’s never seen a player make the drastic change that Riley did this year:
The change that Riley has made, overhauling his entire approach, from pitch type and ball/strike recognition to pitch selection, is far less common. I can’t think of a contemporary example this dramatic: Riley went from plate discipline that threatened to send him back to the minors to plate discipline that has unlocked his natural potential with the bat.
We know Riley was phenomenal this year, but if you’re deciding whether to invest in a player’s card, you want to understand why the recent success occurred. More importantly, you wonder if it is replicable.
These changes didn’t happen by accident or occur overnight. Instead, Riley’s 2021 season was a culmination of years of hard work, video study, and mastering the game within the game. As Devan Fink of FanGraphs noted earlier this season, Riley finally started producing offensively the way fans hoped he would after seeing the first 30 games of his career. Still, he’s doing it in a different way that looks to be much more sustainable.
The list below shows five of Austin Riley’s most valuable cards, along with the most recent PSA-10 sale for each card. As you can see, the prices are very reasonable and offer a good deal of upside to investors.
It is not hard to see why this card commands more of a premium than Riley’s other rookie cards. The glimmering Sapphire finish offsets the grim determination on Riley’s face.
The card has that iconic feel. Austin’s beautiful signature offsets the famed Bowman 1st logo. There is no doubt this card skyrockets in value if Austin pans out.
Similar to the Bowman Chrome Draft, the Topps variety offsets the nice strokes of the auto with the iconic RC logo. We like the Bowman a bit more, but this card is more affordable.
The refractor has a classy feel, with a striking pattern on the upper left-hand side. Riley as always, looks very focused on making solid contact.
We are not big fans of the Bowmans Best style. But this is another worthy Austin auto and is available at a surprisingly reasonable price.
To me, Austin Riley is a worthy investment. Along with his first World Series ring, Riley’s breakout season wasn’t the result of small sample size luck or an unsustainable hot streak. Instead, he reworked his whole offensive approach and gave us a glimpse of what the future holds. The Braves are confident that they have their third baseman for the foreseeable future. You should be confident too.