When the Sox take the field tonight, or more accurately when they watch the Braves take it in the top of the first, they’ll see a player they hope Luis Robert could emulate. That’s going to be awfully hard to do, as Ronald Acuna Jr. is off to one of the best starts in MLB history. It’s true. Acuna will walk with giants when this season is over.
Acuna is likely to get around 6.0 WAR in his second season, which is his age-21 season. If that were to happen, Acuna’s 9.7 WAR through age 21 would be the 20th best mark in history. It’ll be the best mark since Mike Trout 20.3 WAR in 2013, though he turned 22 in August of that season whereas Acuna won’t turn 22 until December. It’ll put him around names like Frank Robinson and Eddie Matthews. Not bad company.
It’s a mark of the game today how many modern players are on the list post-20th and lower. Manny Machado is on there, as is Juan Soto. So is Carlos Correa. And these are all names that Acuna has beaten so far and is only going to widen the lead as this season closes out. When you’re ahead of those, you’ve clearly pressed the right buttons.
Acuna was held down in Triple-A last year for the season’s first three weeks, due to whatever reason the Braves tried to hide behind to not say it was about service time. He’s already played 23 more games this year, but has 10 more home runs and basically double the stolen-bases. Acuna has also increased his walk-rate to 10.2% this year, up a point from last year.
The big improvement in Acuna’s game this season is his defense. He was a subpar centerfielder last year, but has become a slightly above-average one, with 1.2 defensive runs saved after a -7.8 season. As he learns the hitters at this level and gets more accustomed, that’s only going to go up, making him an all-around weapon.
While Acuna has hit more homers this year, he’s lost some slugging and ISO from his rookie season. It’s hard to know why, as he’s hitting the ball just as hard as he did last year and is producing far more line drives. He’s not striking out any more than he did, so maybe it’s just one of those strange things that happen in baseball, and will rebound simply because baseball gonna baseball on ya.
The impressive thing about Acuna is that he murders pretty much every pitch. He’s not just hitting fastballs and mistakes. He hits .338 against change-ups, .330 against curves, and .315 on sinkers. He covers most of the zone, though up and away seems to still be something of a weak spot for him:
Maybe that’s the one half-downside to Acuna this year, is that he’s not doing as much damage going the other way. But even that’s relative. Last year he had a 1.200 OPS when going the other way, and this year it’s all the way down to .908. This would be complaining about a mole on the Venus De Milo.
It’s hard to know where Acuna goes from here, because he’s already a top-tier player. He strikes out a touch more than you’d like, but if he’s going to hit 40 bombs, steal 30 bags, and hit around .300, who is really going to complain? If he lowers that, then you’re talking about the Trout-Betts range for him.
It sets up the Braves for a while for sure. The next generation is Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley, though they’ll have some more spots to fill. Christian Pache and Drew Waters could arrive next year. Weren’t we sick of the Braves winning all the time not so long ago?