An eventful first half-season in the majors for Ronald Acuna ended with the celebrated Braves rookie playing center field for the first time at the big-league level Sunday against the Diamondbacks in the last game before the All-Star break.
Braves manager Brian Snitker switched Acuna from left field to center and benched slumping Ender Inciarte, who’s having his worst season at the plate and has been especially unproductive against left-handers. The Braves faced Arizona lefty Patrick Corbin on Sunday.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Acuna said through a translator Sunday morning, shortly after finding out he would be in center field. “Obviously it’s my first time (playing center) in the big leagues and I’m excited. It’s my natural position, so I’m excited.”
The 20-year-old Venezuelan, who entered this season as the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball, made 108 starts in center field during four minor-league seasons, far more than Acuna made in left field (40) or right field (44). But the Braves had two-time Gold Glove winner Inciarte in center, so they had him play more in left field last season and during the Arizona Fall League, figuring that would be his spot at least for the beginning of his major league career.
With his strong arm, top-of-the-scouting-chart speed and excellent instincts, Acuna has the tools to be a strong defender at any of the outfield positions. He hasn’t been shagging balls in center field during batting practice this season, but wasn’t concerned about the abrupt move.
“I’ve been just focusing on left field because that’s what I’ve been playing,” he said, “but I’m not too nervous about it just because I think it’s my natural position. That’s what I’ve played before.”
Ozzie Albies moved up from the second spot in the lineup to hit leadoff in place of Inciarte. Acuna, who’d batted sixth or seventh since returning June 29 after a one-month stint on the disabled list, moved Sunday to the No. 2 slot, where he hit behind Albies for a one-month stretch prior to Acuna’s tumble at Boston that left him with a sprained ACL in his left knee and contusion to the knee and his lower back.
Acuna has struggled lately, like a majority of Braves hitters, and entered Sunday with a .255 average, .311 OBP and .448 slugging percentage in 180 games over 42 games, with 11 doubles, seven home runs, 12 walks and 56 strikeouts.
“It’s been a season of highs and lows,” he said. “Obviously the injuries kept me out for a little while, but that’s all behind us and now I’m just focusing on the second half of the season and finishing strong.”
The youngest player in the majors when he was called up from Triple-A on April 25, Acuna was terrific out of the gate, hitting .382 (13-for-34) with seven extra-base hits and a 1.138 OPS in his first eight major league games including seven Braves wins. Opponents took notice and made adjustments, and Acuna hit .170 (9-for-53) with three extra-base hits and a .569 OPS in his next 14 games.
Acuna worked with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer on some adjustments in his approach and was starting to get back in a groove, batting .300 (9-for-30) with a .746 OPS over his next seven games before the frightening incident at Boston, where he took a violent tumble after beating out an infield hit and having his left cleat stick in the dirt.
His knee hyperextended to such a degree that many observers initially feared a season-ending injury. But the MRI showed only a sprain and Acuna has shown no linger effects from the injury – no loss of speed, no hesitancy running the bases – since returning from the DL.
Before Sunday, Acuna hit .229 (11-for-48) with six extra-base hits, two walks, 19 strikeouts and a .712 OPS in 13 games since his return.
Meanwhile, Inciarte’s struggles have gone almost unabated since opening day. He had a .241 average, .312 OBP and .649 OPS in 91 games before Sunday, and in his past 18 games Inciarte hit .176 with a .550 OPS.
Inciarte had a .208 average and .536 OPS in 108 plate appearances against lefties, the 13th-lowest OPS among 187 major-league qualifiers before Sunday.