Braves’ Austin Riley using mental skills coach in hopes of raising performance

Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) hits during the second inning in Game 2 of baseball's National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) hits during the second inning in Game 2 of baseball's National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

NORTH PORT, Fla. — To a question about achieving consistency, Austin Riley first points to the importance of the mental side of baseball. It is crucial in a lengthy season with many ups and downs, twists and turns.

"I think that's what the greats do -- they are so mentally strong," Riley said. "And guys don't practice it."

Well, now he does.

To gain a mental edge, Riley began working with Johan Martinez-Khalilian, an executive coach for Novus Global, at the start of this year. In other words, Martinez-Khalilian is a mental skills coach, someone who is helping Riley carve out an advantage in that area of the game as the third baseman tries to be a perennial MVP candidate.

"We practice our hitting, we practice our defense, we lift weights," Riley said. "But this game is so mentally tough on you. You need to practice the mental game. Hopefully, (my work) is gonna show."

ALIGND Sports Agency President Matt Hannaford, who represents Riley, knows Martinez-Khalilian and thought he might be a good match for Riley. Hannaford set up an introduction for Riley and Martinez-Khalilian, and the two have worked together ever since.

Before this, Riley had never worked with a mental skills coach. "It's been eye-opening, so it's good," he said. Three times a month, Riley and Martinez-Khalilian jump on a Zoom call. They discuss everything from the ebbs and flows of baseball to developing a positive mindset.

Riley knows he might have a couple of bad games here and there, or could slump. Instead of beating himself up, he is trying to focus on learning from mistakes and failure.

"What we're working on is just how to rewire our brain to think in ways that are positive versus (negative)," Riley said.

He gives an example: Baseball players, Riley said, go on and on about how the season is "a grind." It's a grind, it's a grind, it's a grind.

As Riley points out, saying it in that way means it's difficult, and while that's true, it could lead to a bit of a defeatist attitude.

"It's a negative thought," he said. "We're trying to train our brain to be positive. It's good stuff."

Mental skills coaches are becoming more popular in baseball. The most well-documented story might be that of Braves starting pitcher Kyle Wright, whose work with Zach Sorensen, the Braves' mental performance coach, preceded a breakthrough season last year. Reliever Joe Jiménez used a mental skills coach in Detroit to help him overcome two rough seasons before he experienced a successful 2022 campaign. Now Riley is using one as he tries to continue establishing himself as one of baseball's top players.

"I'm definitely seeing some improvements as far as just the way you see things," Riley said.

Last season, Riley, an All-Star, led the National League with 325 total bases, second only to Aaron Judge in all of baseball. Riley finished fifth in the sport with 38 home runs. He posted an .878 OPS.

At one point, Riley was a legitimate NL MVP candidate. He got hot, then stayed hot -- long enough to prove it might not be a fluke and he might simply be that good now.

"I 100% believe I can be that guy, and I think there's more in there," Riley said.

Riley said Bobby Magallanes, the Braves' assistant hitting coach, threw out one analytical metric -- Riley doesn't remember which one -- and said Riley had the top mark in the sport. "And I felt like I could have been way better," Riley said, alluding to how he cooled off down the stretch. But Riley doesn't believe last summer was a one-time hot stretch.

"I feel like there's more there, just like as far as a consistent basis, and that's the name of the game," Riley said. "That's what I'm going to try to work on. So, yeah, I definitely think that's who I am, and I think there's some more in there."

From May 1-Aug. 3, Riley hit .308 with a .966 OPS. He had 25 doubles, one triple and 23 home runs during that span. He also signed a long-term extension with the Braves, who made him a cornerstone of the franchise.

Riley's performance put him in the middle of the MVP conversation. With a stronger finish, he might have won the award. But Riley has proved he might be an annual MVP candidate.

"I think (he) absolutely (can)," manager Brian Snitker said. "He has the capability of being in that conversation every year that he plays, just like the guy before him was. He's that good and that consistent and that dedicated. He should be in that conversation every year."

Yes, you read that correctly -- that is a Chipper Jones reference. While Snitker didn't mean Riley is the next Chipper Jones, the 25-year-old third baseman has the talent and work ethic to achieve almost anything he wants in baseball. His contract also gives him an opportunity to be one of the franchise's all-time greats.

In August, the Braves signed Riley to a 10-year, $212 million extension. It means he almost certainly will spend his entire prime, and maybe even his whole career, in Atlanta. He could one day be someone fans remember forever.

"You play for your legacy, you play for the impact that you make on the field, as well as off the field," Riley said. "Trying to play the game the right way, being a guy in the clubhouse that guys feel like they could come up to talk to me about anything. Be myself. I think that (a legacy) comes like an icing-on-the-cake type thing. If I just play my game the way I know I'm capable of playing, carrying myself the way I do, maybe that's something, maybe it's not. It would be pretty sweet."

On the field, you can spot signs of Riley's hard work. He regularly punishes baseballs and terrorizes pitchers. Each year, he has improved in the field.

Off the field, with Martinez-Khalilian's help, he's now beginning to focus on strengthening the mental part of his game.

"The mental game of baseball, of any sport, there's so much to it," Riley said. "It's way more than being physical and just gifted. The mental side of a (162-game season) is tough. It's like, why not practice it? Why not? And that's something I'm learning.

"Some guys are like, 'Oh, he's got a mental coach, there's something wrong with him.' No, it's just like I said: I'm trying to sharpen the mind so I can be a better player, help my teammates, win more ballgames. That's essentially what it's trying to do. I'm just trying to be a better version of myself."

  photo  Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) thros to first base for the out during the first inning in Game 2 of baseball's National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

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