‘He’s just searching’: Braves’ superstar Ronald Acuña trying to find his way

National League's Ronald Acuna, of the Braves, kisses his bat during batting practice before the MLB All-Star baseball game, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

National League's Ronald Acuna, of the Braves, kisses his bat during batting practice before the MLB All-Star baseball game, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Ron Washington doesn’t coach the Braves’ outfielders, nor is he the club’s hitting coach. But he has gained lots of experience and has seen everything imaginable through years and years in baseball.

And in Ronald Acuña, Washington sees this:

“He ain’t lost his ability, he’s just searching. He’s not used to failing.”

Acuña might be going through one of the tougher stretches of his young career. He is one of the sport’s top talents, but hasn’t looked like it recently.

“Honestly, I think it’s just baseball,” Acuña told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday, through interpreter Franco García. “The first half is over; the second half is about to begin. It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Acuña entered Saturday’s game against the Angels without a hit in his past 11 at-bats. He had a .262 batting average with a .769 OPS for the season. And if you look at numbers like these, you might think nothing is wrong. After all, these marks are better than those posted by the average hitter.

Acuña is not “the average hitter.”

He’s a three-time All-Star who has won two Silver Slugger Awards. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2018. He is a five-tool talent who has had an incredible career to this point, and he’s still only 24 years old. But right now, he’s struggling.

“They all go through it,” Washington said. “And he missed a lot of baseball (because of the torn ACL), and he’s young. And he’s been doing a lot on his talent. Now he’s got to start doing some stuff on his intelligence.”

Intelligence is like the sixth tool. Washington, the Braves’ third base coach who also coaches infielders, said Acuña can’t panic – he must make adjustments. Sometimes those tweaks, Washington said, will require three or four days.

“A kid like Ronald Acuña, you think he got three or four days to be patient?” Washington said. “You got to learn that, and he will.”

This season, Acuña’s average exit velocity has decreased. His hard-hit rate is lower, his strikeout rate is higher and his walk rate is lower.

Again: These metrics are down for Acuña’s standards. His hard-hit rate still sits in the 91st percentile in MLB, while his average exit velocity is in the 87th percentile.

The Braves need Acuña, who is their most talented player. He’ll continue to play. They want him to, as manager Brian Snitker said, “just get going like he can.”

As of Saturday, the right fielder had only eight home runs and 22 RBIs over 233 at-bats. He hit .212 with a home run through his first 17 games in July. A few nagging injuries haven’t helped him this season.

“Just keep working hard,” Acuña said. “Because (slumps are) going to happen, right? And that’s the only way you can get through it, is just to keep focused and keep pushing through it.”

Asked if he’s working on anything specific with the Braves’ hitting coaches, Acuña said: “Nope. It’s like I said before: This is baseball. At some point, it will click.”

When explaining this, Acuña pointed to his rookie season, when he hit only seven homers in the first half before slugging 19 after the All-Star break.

Acuña is a freak athlete, but his defense has seemed lacking in spots. Entering Saturday, he had posted minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs, over 417-1/3 innings in right field. Acuña’s athletic ability eventually could make this a non-issue – he’s always been a great outfielder – but it’s worth pointing out.

“I feel good defensively,” Acuña said.

Acuña had a .905 OPS over his career before stepping up to the plate Saturday. His 162-game average includes 40 home runs. He’s one of the sport’s best players.

Washington believes Acuña will figure it out. “And he might have to fight this whole year to figure it out,” the coach added. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen like that, but if he does, he will be smarter for it coming back the next year.” But this Rnald Acuña is not the one we’re accustomed to watching.

He’s searching.

“But he’s got to slow down in his mind, and one day, it’ll pop,” Washington said. “Right now, his mind is rolling because he ain’t used to being like this. But he’s human. And he hasn’t lost his ability, he’s still got all those (expletive) tools.”

“He’s in that learning mode, he’s in that experience mode. Everybody that ever stepped between those lines experienced what he’s going through. He’s never been through it.”

Yates in Atlanta for a day

Kirby Yates threw a scoreless inning for Double-A Mississippi on Friday. He allowed two hits but struck out two batters.

He was back in Atlanta on Saturday. This is not a setback, though.

Yates is expected to pitch again Sunday for the Braves’ Double-A affiliate.

“I think everything went well,” Snitker said. “He said he just feels rusty is all, which is normal. ... All the reports are really good. Just get him back out there consistently.”

He is working to return from his second Tommy John surgery.

Hard-throwing opponents

On Friday, Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani threw four pitches that touched triple digits and seven that reached at least 99 mph.

He’s the latest flamethrower to face the Braves.

Entering Saturday, the Braves had seen 217 pitches at 99 mph or above this season. That’s the most in the majors.

The Braves have seen 91 pitches that have reached triple digits, the second most in MLB. Only the Dodgers (112) have had more thrown to them.

The Braves are slugging .508 against all fastballs this season, which leads the majors. Their 91.9 mph average exit velocity against fastballs is the top mark in the sport.