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Austin Riley’s breakout season was the culmination of years of hard work, practice and skill refinement, with lots of help along the way.
Austin Riley reached for his bat, settled into his stance, and locked his eyes on an imaginary golf ball sitting on the floor of his New York hotel room. It was an April morning, and Riley, the Atlanta Braves’ promising third baseman, was scuffling. One by one, he took swings as if he was teeing off on the first hole at the golf course.
Watching intently on a FaceTime call was Mike Brumley, a former major-league journeyman infielder and current Braves minor-league hitting coordinator. They met in the batting cages three years ago and have been close ever since. They talk often via text, FaceTime, or phone call when Riley is slumping or if Brumley sees something watching Riley on TV. Besides his father Mike, no one knows Riley’s swing better than Brumley.
After Riley took a few swings, Brumley stopped him. In the first few weeks of the season, Riley was tense in the batter’s box. He was hitting .220/.333/.220 with zero home runs in 58 plate appearances. But in his golf swing, there’s “little tension when he knows he’s going to crush the first drive.” So, Brumley asked, why don’t you approach hitting the same way you do on the golf course?
“That was the start,” Brumley said, in a phone conversation from a baseball camp in Florida.
Ever since, Riley has continued his evolution as a hitter. The 4.5 fWAR he produced since April 18 ranks ninth among all NL players and one spot ahead of teammate Freddie Freeman, who posted a 4.2 fWAR in that span. He has emerged as arguably the Braves’ best player and is likely to finish top-5 in the National League MVP voting, with third base coach Ron Washington saying that “this is what the organization envisioned him being. Maybe not this fast.”
Getting to this point did not come without its challenges. In 2019, Riley went on prolonged slumps that made some in the organization openly wonder whether he could be the long-term third baseman. He struggled making routine plays defensively. He spent hours talking and working with Brumley and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer to learn how to adjust to the adjustments pitchers had made against him.
“Being a guy who started ice-cold,” Riley said, “then came onto the scene very hot, and had your name mentioned in the MVP race. It’s pretty surreal.”
Austin Riley hit a low point in the summer of 2019
The summer of 2019 tested Riley’s patience. After being called up in May, he felt pressure to perform. As a heralded top prospect who some scouts compared to Scott Rolen, he was expected to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies and immediately become a franchise cornerstone for the Braves.
The expectations weighed on him. He was playing a new position (left field) that he had only learned a week earlier with Triple-A Gwinnett because the Braves wanted his bat in the lineup at a position of need. In July, Riley hit .156/.214/.266 in 70 plate appearances. He was placed on the injured list on Aug. 8 with a right knee sprain. He returned weeks later, only to hit .132/.190/.263 in his final 49 plate appearances. Publicly, he remained confident. Privately, he seethed.
“Once I started struggling in 2019, I hit the panic button hard,” Riley said. “I was like, ‘Do I have this? Can I play at this level?’”
After the season, Riley sought guidance from those closest to him. He talked to his father, who coached him growing up in Southaven, Mississippi. He reached out to Brumley, who had experience helping Kyle Seager after he struggled coming up with the Seattle Mariners in 2011. But Brumley understood his work with Riley would be different. “There were so many different issues,” he said.
In Riley, Brumley found an engaged student even when the lessons seemed unusual. In reviewing Riley’s season, it became clear that his two-strike approach needed refining. So, Brumley asked Riley to envision his two-strike swing like he was hunting in a deer stand. The bat worked as the bow and arrow. The ball was the deer. Riley was confused, so he explained.
“You know what’s happening with two strikes?” Brumley asked.
“What?” Riley responded.
“You’re getting buck fever,” Brumley said.
Suddenly, it clicked for Riley. He knew exactly what Brumley was talking about — and realized that he was right.
“He’s been in a tree stand and had a big buck walk beneath him or walk into his sights,” Brumley said. “You start to panic. Your heart starts racing. You can’t pull the bow back because it’s a combination of excitement and anxiety. I’m like, ‘You’re getting down in the count and getting buck fever.’”
This is how Brumley connects with his players. He finds common interests and tries to implement them into baseball. For Riley, sometimes it’s hunting or golfing. Other times, it’s horses, fishing or shooting a shotgun. It depends on the situation and what Brumley thinks will be most effective.
As the talks progressed, Riley visited Brumley in the winter of 2019 to work with him for over a week. Brumley runs hitting schools for various sites across the country and currently operates a facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Together, they have 1-2 hitting sessions per day.
The goal, he said, was to give Riley a list of areas “we want to close up” and to embrace the emotional side of competing on days that he’s feeling less than 100 percent.
After the 2020 season, in which Riley hit .239/.301/.415 in 51 plate appearances, he made two trips to Texas to visit Brumley, not one. He felt the COVID-shortened season exposed certain things in his swing. His first visit in December was used to run drills to “correct sores.” His second visit on Jan. 1 was used as a checkpoint on his progress in those drills and to start swinging the bat again before the start of spring training.
It quickly became clear to Brumley that things were clicking for Riley. His swing looked smoother. His game-planning was improving. His mindset was steady. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to call it a breakout, but this would be the year he puts it all together,’” Brumley said. “You could just tell it was coming.”
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images
In 2021, just after the Braves reported for spring training, a member of the front office asked Brumley what kind of numbers Riley could produce if he played everyday. Confidently, he responded .265 with 25 home runs and 85 RBI.
“Everyone looked at me and said, ‘If he does that, he’s worth riding it out with and watching this thing develop,’” Brumley recalled.
Those numbers were conservative. Riley hit .303/.367/.531 with 33 home runs and 107 RBI in 160 games. He’s walking more. He’s covering the high fastballs that he once could not touch. He became the first Braves’ third baseman since Chipper Jones to hit 30 home runs in a season and joined Jones and Eddie Mathews as the only third basemen in team history to produce 30-homer, 100+ RBI seasons.
Entering spring training, Riley also sought to improve defensively. The Braves have always felt he’d be an above-average defender at third base, but after he committed six errors in 51 games, with most of them coming on routine plays, he connected with Washington, who told him, “I’m your mechanic on duty. There isn’t anything wrong with your game that I can’t fix.’ All I need you to do is come here and play.”
Washington instructed him to show up at 7:30, but Riley walked onto the field each morning at 7:15. At that time in spring training, it was just getting light out. “We were getting s**t in at the twilight of the morning,” Washington said. They worked on his footwork. They improved his balance. They got his arm in sync with his feet. At one point in the spring, manager Brian Snitker turned to Washington and said, “This kid is going to be a really good defender.”
Now, Snitker believes Riley should be in consideration for the Gold Glove Award. Washington agreed, saying “He’s got makeup. He’s got aptitude. He’s got will. He’s got want. When I met him for the first time three years ago at spring training, I could see that in him. He’s everything that people said he was.”
The elite offense, and Gold Glove-caliber defense, is what separates Riley. It helped the Braves overcome Acuña’s season-ending ACL injury, which Riley called a “shot in the gut,” and why general manager Alex Anthopoulos immediately traded for Joc Pederson and later acquired Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Richard Rodriguez despite trailing by 4-5 games in the NL East.
“In my mind, when you have a chance and you’re close, no one ran away with (the division) at the time,” Anthopoulos said. “Our run differential was still pretty solid relative to the NL East. The mindset was to add even coming out of the All-Star break. Certainly, Austin played a part in that, but so did a lot of our players.”
Now, the Braves find themselves in an NLDS showdown with the Milwaukee Brewers. Riley started the first two games 1-for-6, with frustration growing as he struck out twice and made weak contact in each at-bat. Before the seventh at-bat, however, he thought back to something Brumley told him in the winter. He then sent the second pitch, an 88.4 mph changeup from Brandon Woodruff, 428 feet into right-center field to give the Braves a 3-0 lead.
“Every time,” Riley said, laughing. “I really don’t know what I’d do without Mike.”