Ronald Acuna has struck out 41 times in 163 plate appearances when leading off a game. That’s in line with his career strikeout percentage, which is 25.4. Once upon a time, his whiffs -- he leads the National League in strikeouts -- would have barred him from leadoff duty. No longer, though.
In this era of launch angle, the cost of a whiff is the price of doing baseball business. Ronald Acuna, big swinger, keeps doing bigger and bigger business. The risk of putting him in the leadoff spot is that he’ll make a quick out. The reward is that he’ll generate a quick run. That’s a risk well worth taking.
Acuna’s 2019 stats in the leadoff slot – a batting average of .292, an OPS of .910. His stats when hitting cleanup – a batting average of .278, an OPS of .854. Maybe you’re thinking: “Isn’t a guy with power wasted if he’s hitting behind the pitcher for much of the game?” Not if Acuna is the guy. He averaged 0.135 RBIs per plate appearance as the No. 4 hitter; he’s averaging 0.148 RBIs per PA as the No. 1.
There will surely come a time when Brian Snitker puts Ronald Acuna in the 3- or 4-hole and leaves him there. For now, the Braves are better when Acuna digs in with nobody on and nobody out in the first. Last year’s team did its most damage with him leading off; this year’s team got going when Snitker moved him back to the top of the order. Cause and effect, no?
Having one of the game’s more powerful hitters lead off flies in the face of old-school baseball, where you wanted your boppers to hit with men aboard. In the year 2019, however, almost anybody is capable of being a bopper. In any era, there’s no jolt like having your leadoff man score before the opposing pitcher records an out.
Yeah, the leadoff stuff is only part of the glorious mosaic that is Ronald Acuna. But it’s both a fun part and a difference-making part. For the other team’s starting pitcher, it’s a fearful part. You can’t pitch around Acuna because he can wreak havoc on the bases. If you throw him something he can handle, he can hit it 450 feet.
Freddie Freeman is a great hitter. His career OPS is .884. Acuna’s career OPS when leading off a game is .919. Of Acuna’s 62 career home runs, 14 have come with nobody on and nobody out in the first. If you’re a manager, you play to your strength. Having Acuna lead off is among the greatest strengths available to any team.
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