How the Braves got here: Ronald Acuna moved to leadoff - again

Braves star outfielder Ronald Acuna celebrated his 22nd birthday on Dec. 18.

Part 2 of preview series: How the Braves got here. Before the season, even though the Braves were defending National League East champions, more attention was focused on the division rivals Nationals, Phillies and Mets. Yet, the Braves ran away with the division. In a five-part series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines how the Braves repeated. Today: Ronald Acuna moves into the leadoff spot.

There are similarities between the 2018 and 2019 Braves. Both needed several factors to break their way. Both received unexpected production and assistance via trades. Both benefited from the rest of the National League East’s inconsistencies.

But there’s one similarity more prevalent than all the others: Ronald Acuna’s move to the leadoff spot.

When the Braves arrived at spring training, manager Brian Snitker indicated the team would move Acuna from leadoff – where he thrived in the second half of 2018 – to cleanup. His hope was that Ender Inciarte would prove a capable leadoff man again in front of Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman and Acuna.

That didn’t happen. The Braves were a pedestrian 18-20 through 38 games. They were swept in an embarrassing manner in Los Angeles, dominated by the team that ended their season a year ago. When they left L.A. for Arizona, Snitker elected to deploy an alteration that he had batted around in his head.

Acuna was shifted back to leadoff. Donaldson, hitting in the two-hole, was bumped down to cleanup. The Braves reeled off a 22-9 run, third-best record in the bigs over that span, and leapfrogged the Phillies for first place. When the Braves took over pole position June 12, they never relinquished it.

It couldn’t have been better for Acuna, who hit his stride at leadoff as he did last season, when he won rookie of the year and helped the Braves roll to an NL East title with an explosive second half. The 21-year-old fell just shy of the fifth 40-40 season in MLB history, hitting 41 homers, swiping 37 bases and knocking in 101 runs in 2019, his first full season in the majors.

The move engineered arguably the best offense in franchise history. The Braves set a team record for homers. They scored the second-most runs in the National League. They could have as many as three position players in the top 10 of MVP voting.

Snitker looked back on May 10 as his most memorable occurrence of the season. “The Arizona one where we changed the lineup probably stands out the most,” Snitker said Sept. 20, roughly half an hour after the Braves defeated the Giants to win the division.

“Where we were in Arizona, we were doing the same thing every day and hoping for a different result,” Snitker said in June, looking back on the lineup change. “I didn’t like the feel overall. It wasn’t anything to do with any individual. It was just our club and where we were. We wanted to mix and match and do something different.”

The Braves did do something different, turning around a mediocre start to become a legitimate World Series contender. Next year, however, they’ll probably have to do it without moving Acuna’s place in the order; Snitker seems happy to leave him where he is.

“What a dumbass I was,” Snitker said Aug. 14, reflecting on Acuna hitting cleanup to start the season. “It was a different animal when we put him in leadoff. It’s where he belongs.”

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