Austin Riley put his name on the map last season.
He was always a top prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization, but he had yet to gain the attention of the rest of the league. From 2019 to 2020, he hit .232 with an 86 wRC+ in 131 games.
Then, in 2021, he hit .303 with 33 home runs and a 135 wRC+. He won a Silver Slugger Award and finished seventh in MVP voting. Oh, and he helped the Braves win a World Series championship too.
Thus far in 2022, he’s been even better. His 158 wRC+ ranks third in the National League. He is on pace to hit 44 home runs. Atlanta has been one of the best teams in baseball, and Riley is a major reason why.
While he received some support in last year’s race, Riley is a serious MVP contender this season. Here is a quick look at his case to be the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
All stats were taken prior to play on August 12th.
Second Half Heroics
Riley was terrific all year long in 2021, but it was his particularly strong second half that earned him a handful of MVP votes. After the All-Star break last season, the Braves third baseman hit .333 with 19 home runs and a .976 OPS.
In 2022, Riley is continuing that trend. He is hitting .361 with a 194 wRC+ since the second half began.
Having a strong second half will help Riley’s MVP case in a number of ways. Firstly, he is already posting MVP caliber numbers. If he can keep hitting like he has been lately, his stats are only going to get more impressive.
Current NL MVP frontrunner Paul Goldschmidt has, throughout his career, performed slightly worse in the second half. If Riley continues to swing a hot bat, he has plenty of time to overtake Goldschmidt in several offensive categories.
Second of all, having a strong second half could work in Riley’s favor with the BBWAA voters. The MVP is meant to be an award for the entire regular season, but voters are human, and human beings tend to be swayed by recent performance. Moreover, some old-school voters might put more weight on production that comes down the stretch during the postseason chase.
Austin Riley Has Earned His Success in 2022
Riley has been one of the best hitters in baseball this season, but he still trails Paul Goldschmidt in most offensive categories. He is second to Goldschmidt in both OPS and wOBA. He is third, behind Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, in the park-adjusted metric wRC+.
However, he outranks both Cardinals sluggers in all of the Statcast metrics that measure quality of contact. He is the only player in the league who ranks in the top three in both wOBA and expected wOBA.
Riley ranks first in the National League in hard hit rate and expected slugging percentage. He is second in barrel rate and fourth in expected batting average.
So, not only has Riley has had great success at the plate, but according to Statcast, he has deserved all of that success.
This is not to say the MVP race should be decided by expected metrics. That’s not how the voters will make their decision, nor should it be. Even so, the fact that Riley has made such high quality contact is another argument in his favor. It is also a positive sign that he will continue to tear the cover off the ball going forward.
Austin Riley vs. Paul Goldschmidt
Goldschmidt is not Riley’s only competition for the NL MVP. Indeed, there are many players in contention for the award. But Goldschmidt is currently the frontrunner, and he is the candidate most likely to steal votes away from Riley.
Other contenders — such as Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts, and Francisco Lindor — are all-around players. They are making an MVP case with their gloves as much as with their bats. If Riley wins, however, it is going to be because he outslugged the competition. Right now, however, the most impressive slugger in the league is Goldschmidt.
The Cardinals first baseman is leading the league in all three triple slash categories. His wRC+ is a ways ahead of all the competition.
Goldschmidt is second in both RBI and runs scored. His 27 home runs rank fourth. He is the only NL hitter to rank in the top five in all three of those categories.
By weighted runs created, the metric from FanGraphs that attempts to quantify how much total value a player has provided with his bat, Goldschmidt ranks first with 99. Riley is tied for second with 90. So, as things currently stands, it is pretty clear Goldschmidt is outslugging Riley. That gives him the inside track on the MVP.
Riley does have some advantages over Goldy. He plays third base, a more valuable defensive position. He has had less “good luck” thank Goldschmidt too, according to metrics like BABIP and xwOBA.
On the other hand, Riley grades out as a pretty poor defensive third baseman. He also plays in a more hitter-friendly ballpark than Goldschmidt. And MVP votes rarely put much stock in BABIP and xwOBA.
Therefore, if the young Atlanta star wants to be the National League MVP, he has to outhit Goldschmidt. He also has to hit well enough to beat out defensive studs, like Arenado, Lindor and Betts, and to stave off other big bats, like Pete Alonso and Freddie Freeman.
It won’t be easy, but the 25-year-old should be up to the task. Austin Riley is off to a great start in the second half, and the Statcast metrics indicate his success is sustainable. Goldschmidt and the rest of the NL MVP candidates had better stay on their toes.