20-year-old phenom provides huge spark as Braves won the NL Eastern Division title.

Ronald Acuna, rookie of the year. Soon: Ronald Acuna, MVP

We need to be careful. Not every hotshot winds up in Cooperstown. We note Joe Charboneau, gone from the majors two years after being named the American League’s 1980 rookie of the year, or Chris Coghlan, the 2009 NL ROY who finished with a career WAR of 0.2, but why look afar for cases to cite? As a hitter, Jason Heyward’s rookie year remains his best. Dansby Swanson hit .302 in his first big-league season; he has hit .235 since. 

We note that neither Heyward nor Swanson was named rookie of the year. (Heyward finished second to Buster Posey; Swanson arrived in August, too late to mount a real campaign.) Ronald Acuna just won the award over two guys – Juan Soto and Walker Buehler – who might have topped the balloting most other years, and he won it in a rout. He drew 27 of the 30 first-place votes. 

Acuna wasn’t just the National League’s best freshman. Over the season’s second half, he was very nearly its best player. His OPS after the All-Star break was 1.028; only Christian Yelich, who’ll be the MVP, and Justin Turner did better. As David Schoenfield of ESPN notes, Acuna’s .552 slugging percentage was the sixth-best by a 20-year-old ever. The other five: Mel Ott, A-Rod, Ted Williams, Mike Trout and Frank Robinson. Going by WAR, all save Trout rank among the top 18 position players ever, and Trout, still just 26, is merely the greatest player of his generation. 

Lest we forget, Acuna didn’t make his MLB debut until April 25 despite having torn up the Grapefruit League. He missed 29 games after tweaking his knee over Memorial Day weekend at Fenway Park. He finished with a 4.1 WAR over 111 games. Had he played 150 games at that same rate, his WAR would have been 5.5, which would have been third-best among NL position players, trailing only Yelich (7.3) and Trevor Story (5.6.) And we say again: Acuna is 20. Next year he’ll be an all-grown-up 21. 

We do need to be careful, though. Every player has a weakness – well, every player except Trout – and pitching coaches are geniuses at finding them. Heyward’s famously big swing looked fine when he hit the famous Opening Day home run off Carlos Zambrano, and he was likewise 20 years old. Heyward would hit 18 home runs as a rookie; he has bettered that only once since. In his three seasons since signing with the Cubs for $184 million, he has managed a total of 26 homers. 

Acuna just hit that many in 111 games. (Plus a grand slam that gave the Braves their one NLDS victory.) Everything about Acuna – his swing, his body, his temperament, the five tools that in his case really are five tools – suggests that he’ll only get better, but his tomorrows, same as everyone’s tomorrows, come with no guarantee. What if he struggles? What if the pressure to exceed causes him to mess with his mechanics? What if he gets hurt? 

If we’re looking to pick nits, Acuna did strike out 123 times in 111 games. Over 150 games, that’d be 166 strikeouts, which would have ranked seventh-most among National Leaguers. On the other hand, his walk rate was 9.2 percent. A key reason Trout is the WARlord is that he’s an OBP killer. His walk rate as a rookie – he was 20 then, too – was 10.5 percent. Trout’s OBP in 2012 was .399. Acuna’s this year was .366. He had a much better feel for the strike zone at 20 than, say, Ozzie Albies (.305 OBP) did at 21. 

(And it’s not as if Trout, great as he is, never whiffs. In 2014, his 184 Ks led the AL. He also won his first MVP plaque that year. This is baseball in the 21st Century. Everybody whiffs.) 

About Acuna, let’s ask this: What is it he can’t do? Hit for power? Note those 26 homers, eight while leading off games. Hit for average? With 12 games to go, he was at .296. He finished at .293. Run? Sixteen stolen bases in 21 tries. Field? Throw? You’ve seen him, right? 

He was the best-looking rookie since Trout, and there’s a real chance he’ll soon be the National League’s answer to Trout. For all the discussion, some of it furthered in this space, as to whether the Braves should spend a fortune to sign Bryce Harper/Manny Machado, the real answer is that they could well have their Harper/Machado – and Acuna turns 21 on Dec. 18 and made $545,000 last season. (If the Braves don’t move to lock him up soonish, they’re idiots – and they’re not idiots.) 

Yes, we should be careful. But much of the fun of sports, baseball in particular, is seeing young players and dreaming of what they’ll become. Acuna arrived in the majors as the No. 1 prospect. Within a year or two, he should be one of the game’s half-dozen best players.

For the past five years, the Braves have been Freddie Freeman’s team, and Freeman is a certifiably great player who should have many more fabulous seasons. Even at that, it won’t be long before this is Ronald Acuna’s team – assuming it’s not already.

About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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