Franchise players come in all shapes and sizes, but a fan typically knows one when they see one.
The Atlanta Braves most definitely found one in Austin Riley.
A tireless work ethic helped Riley rise through the ranks, claim the starting third base job and establish himself as an All-Star slugger, all while helping carry the club to October glory.
Riley has accomplished all of that in large part due to his desire to play every single day.
“Your whole game comes out in the 162,” Riley said. “It may be that one play that you’re in there that could be the difference in a ballgame, and that’s something I don’t take lightly.”
Riley has discovered consistency to be a key component to success. His everyday approach is fueled by the belief that he cannot help the team from the bench.
That goes for both sides of the ball.
Atlanta’s comeback victory in Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Monday provided the kind of performances upon which a legacy is built.
Two of the biggest moments belonged to Riley, emphasizing the well-rounded skill set of the slugging third baseman.
In the eighth inning, Riley belted a go-ahead home run. An inning later, he was the right man, at the right spot, at the right time to finish an unorthodox 8-5-3 double play that sealed a victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was a sign of just how complete Riley’s game has become.
“It’s been a really fun thing for me to watch his growth and development as he’s made himself one of the premier players in baseball,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s one of the better defensive players in the game and just the pure hitter, power, the whole thing — his whole game really is up there with the best in the business.”
Riley grew into the player he is thanks in no small part to his dedication to playing every possible inning of every possible game. Even when the bat is not clicking, a play with the glove may provide just as much value on a given day.
“You’re going to go through the ebbs and flows on offense, where you’re not going to be there,” Riley said, “but if you’re valuable enough to where you can handle your defensive spot, I think that can take care of it.”
Arriving at that way of thinking, like his development as a young player, took time.
When the Braves selected Riley in the first round of the 2015 amateur draft, the outlook was very different for the club. A few years of winning for the Braves gave way to a complete rebuild and all of the losing that typically comes with it.
In fact, the only reason Atlanta possessed the additional supplemental draft pick to select Riley was because it traded All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel — now with the Phillies no less — to the San Diego Padres on the eve of opening day.
The Braves hit the reset button and Riley was one of the building blocks.
Four years later, he exploded onto the scene with a home run binge the likes of which no Braves rookie had ever produced. Riley slugged nine homers in his first 18 games in the big leagues. He did all of that while playing the unfamiliar position of left field, the only place he could find his way in the lineup back in 2019.
Though some struggles would follow, Riley’s initial success provided a preview of the player he would become. Whether it was grinding his way through the minor leagues or simply navigating the highs and lows over the course of a season, Riley always put in the work.
He took over as the starting third baseman in 2020 and parlayed that into a breakout season a year later, becoming a cornerstone for the franchise that captured a World Series title in the process.
Riley batted a career-best .303 with 33 home runs and 107 RBIs in 2021. Last season, he belted a personal-best 38 homers and led the NL with 325 total bases while becoming an All-Star for the first time.
In 2022, the Braves rewarded Riley with the richest contract in franchise history. That 10-year, $212 million deal was the largest in a string of multi-year extensions designed to keep the core of the team together for the foreseeable future.
The 2023 season was another prolific slash line for Riley, who was again an All-Star. He hit 37 homers to go along with 97 RBIs and set a new career-high with 117 runs scored.
On a club that won it all two years ago and enters each season with World Series aspirations, Riley is one of the Braves’ crown jewels.
He burnished his résumé with yet another 30-homer, 90-RBI season in 2023. In doing so, Riley joined Hall of Famers Chipper Jones and Eddie Mathews as the only third basemen in Braves franchise history to post those numbers in three or more consecutive seasons.
“He’s gotten through adversities and the ups and downs of tearing the layers off to becoming a major leaguer, and he’s a really, really good one,” Snitker said. “Just how he handles himself, how he plays the game, he’s a big leaguer and one of the best in the business.”
Riley is an avid hunter, but he instead sets his sights during the regular season on playing in as many games as he can. He believes doing so does as much for the team culture as it does in the box score.
“Whether it’s at the end of your career or wherever it may be, I’m a guy that goes out there and is going to play every day,” Riley said. “There’s definitely value to that — that accountability of knowing you’re going to come in every day and prepare and work hard to show your teammates that you’re accountable on a daily basis.”
With three full seasons under his belt, Riley is already one of the best third basemen in franchise history, but there could be much more in store.
Over the life of his contract, which could take him through his age-36 season if the Braves exercise their club option for 2036, Riley has a chance to establish himself as one of the best players ever to put on a Braves uniform.
“You spend so much time and effort, and you pour so much into this game,” Riley said. “I think it’s one of the things you can look back on when you’re done and say, ‘I gave it my everything, day in and day out.’ You can put your head on the pillow at night and know that you did that.”
This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal. Find it here.