2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Can Austin Riley Stay This Hot?

by Ryan Kirksey
2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends

Welcome to 2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Can Austin Riley Stay This Hot!

On Sunday afternoon, Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley reached bases two more times (via a home run and a walk) in four plate appearances. That .500 on-base-percentage night barely ticked up his on-base percentage over the last two weeks to .413. If there has ever been a non-Shohei Ohtani player in 2023 who is producing an absolutely scorching hot stretch, Riley just confirmed he is the man to do it.

By many accounts, Riley has been the best hitter in baseball the last two weeks. He has combined power, on-base ability, and average, much to the delight of fantasy managers who endured a rather slow start to the season. Whatever you paid for him in drafts, he is now beginning to turn a profit and he still has two months of games to go.

Can Austin Riley possibly keep up this torrid pace throughout the fantasy baseball season or should we expect it to all come crashing down soon? He is fully healthy after some relatively poor production to start 2023. He also has a significant park upgrade and offensive environment working for him. But what should we project the rest of the way? Can he stay this hot or should we sell high with fantasy trade deadlines looming?

2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Can Austin Riley Stay This Hot?

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Austin Riley is Baseball's Most Valuable Hitter the Last Two Weeks

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It doesn't matter whether you are a fan of standard stats or advanced stats. Austin Riley is likely at the top of whatever you decide to look at for the last few weeks of July. He ranks ninth in average, 22nd in on-base percentage, and first in slugging. He ranks first in wOBA, wRC+ and is just fractions of a point behind former teammate Freddie Freeman in offensive WAR. For many of these stats, it's not even close. He is 160 points ahead of the second-place hitter in slugging percentage (1.023, compared to Wilmer Flores at .860).

Fantasy managers have been extremely happy with the .327/.383/.836 slash line since the All-Star Break. The eight homers, 14 runs, and 20 RBI in that span are also propping him up to the top of all fantasy player raters.

A quick glance at Riley's Statcast data shows an average strikeout rate and walk rate, and near-immaculate numbers in just about every other hitting category. He has the highest max exit velocity and second-highest average exit velocity of his career. And while he is doing everything he is supposed to do as a middle-of-the-order hitter,  he has a lineup around him that literally resembles the modern-day version of the 1927 Yankees or the 1990s Blake Street Bombers.

Riley may have too late a hot start to come close to catching Acuna for MVP, but he is playing like one over the last several weeks.

For Riley, It's as Simple as Getting the Ball in the Air

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Sometimes we overcomplicate baseball and baseball analysis. The issues Riley was facing early in the season can be attributed to something as simple as not hitting the ball in the air. Over the course of four months, he fixed the problem.

The way to fix this problem? It's not rocket science -- hit the ball more in the air. At the end of April, Riley's groundball rate was an astonishing 50%, while he was hitting only 30% fly balls. These were striking numbers for a player who had a career 37% groundball rate and a career 39% flyball rate. But as of the end of July, Riley has been able to completely flip those numbers. Over the last 31 days, Riley has a 37% groundball rate and a 43% flyball rate. Accompany that with a 55% hard-hit rate in July (35% in April), and it's easy to see how he has gone from nine extra-base hits in April to 13 in July.

This was a correction that combined an elevated launch angle and concentration on getting lift on the ball. His launch angle this season is now 13.1 degrees which is higher than his total output from 2022. With the improvements he has made, his 2023 fly ball rate (39.2%) has now surpassed his career rate of 38.9%.

The extra balls in the air have come at the expense of walks he was taking earlier in the year. He walked only 5% of the time in July compared with over 12% in April, but the batting average has stayed up so that is a trade that fantasy managers are very willing to make.

What Can we Project for Austin Riley the Next Two Months?

While the power looks absolutely legit this season, it's the batting average and on-base percentage that are the most welcome sites that fantasy managers are seeing return. When Riley finished April with a .253 batting average and a slugging percentage under .450, it was officially panic time after a .273/.349/.523 line in 2022. After a career season in 2022, many managers were talking about selling him low.

But now, it's improved so much over the last two months, he sits at .275/.335/.500 for the 2023 season and is getting back entirely in line with his top-six MVP finish from last year.

The good news is that Riley's underlying numbers don't show any crazy luck driving the production. His .309 BABIP is just slightly above the league average. His 19.8% HR/RB rate is actually lower than his past two years even though he is on pace for the same 38 homers he hit last season. With the flyball and groundball rates stabilizing and improving in his favor, this looks like a power trend that should continue for the rest of the season, especially in the great hitter's park in Atlanta.

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