A year ago Thursday, Ronald Acuna addressed the media at Great American Ballpark before his major-league debut. The Braves had dropped the first two games of the series, looking lackadaisical in doing so.
Their response: a long-awaited promotion for baseball’s top prospect, who’d been compared with a host of Hall of Famers. Acuna brought his swagger and energy into the Braves clubhouse, injecting a new level of confidence into the club. They won the next two, the second of which featured Acuna’s first homer and carved one of the more memorable seasons in team history.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Acuna said, recalling his debut through team interpreter Franco Garcia. “I’ve definitely enjoyed my time here, and I’ve made the most of it. That’s one thing that’s never going to change. I’m always going to play with fun because it’s what I want to do, it’s my passion.”
The Braves, coincidentally, are back in Cincinnati at Acuna’s one-year mark. It’s only fitting for an athlete’s tale that seems to have the most appropriate circumstance at every turn.
Acuna’s first-year story can’t be told without one key decision: To spark a stagnant offense, the Braves moved him to the leadoff spot following the All-Star break. He broke out, bringing unprecedented enthusiasm and jaw-dropping moments – sometimes daily – en route to winning rookie of the year. More important, his takeoff propelled the Braves to a National League East title after they were mired in the division’s depths for years previously.
“I put him in the lineup and turn him loose,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I have a great seat to watch this young man play. The best thing I can do is stay out of his way.”
Since his debut, Acuna ranks eighth in the majors with a .931 OPS. He’s reached 30 career homers earlier than any Brave ever. He’s brought the franchise back into the spotlight, becoming a popular talking point for TV and radio while regularly gracing every publication with some variety of “Here’s baseball’s next superstar.”
Acuna, 21, shies away from talking about himself. It’s not about rivaling Mike Trout as the sport’s premier player. While he possesses pronounced confidence, Acuna won’t let it bleed into arrogance. Regardless of status and money, he boasts a young heart perfect for a kid’s game.
“I feel like I’ve always been that way, even as a boy,” Acuna said. “I’ve never felt any reason to change, whether I’ve got fame and notoriety or don’t. There’s no reason to change.”
The fact it’s even a discussion at this point is mind-boggling, but the first 111 games were that impressive: A .293/.366/.552 line with 26 homers, 26 doubles, 64 RBIs and 16 steals; that’s despite missing a month with a knee injury.
“I think everybody would like to have that first year,” Snitker said with a grin, his usual expression when talking all things Acuna. “Actually, feels like he’s been here longer. But he’s done great. He’s done everything we’d hope. He’s done everything he showed, the kind of player he was when we saw him in spring training. He hasn’t disappointed anybody.
“He’s continuing to work. He’s going to get better. He’s not a finished product yet, far from it. You like the base he’s got and the ceiling he has to become one of the better players in the game.”
The term “historic” is overused in sports. Similar can be said of “generational.” Acuna is in his own class, shattering lofty expectations from the get-go. He embodies what we coin a franchise player: It stems beyond talent. His charisma, general marketability, freshness in a sport that’s sometimes stale makes him appeal to all ages, compel any audience.
His rookie year was littered with memorable moments. Homering in five consecutive games. Tormenting the Marlins enough that they decided to hit him rather than try to get him out. An expectation of leadoff extra-base damage. A grand slam in SunTrust Park’s first postseason game.
Fellow Venezuelan outfielder Ender Inciarte called Acuna the best player he’d seen. Colleague after colleague stood in awe of his achievements. First baseman Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ franchise pillar, insists Acuna has another speed we’ve yet to see.
Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox weren’t afraid to use Andrew Jones as a comparable. Acuna’s Triple-A manager, Damon Berryhill, invoked Alex Rodriguez. Dansby Swanson, who briefly was teammates with Acuna during his trip to the minors, said the prodigy is simply “a better athlete than everybody else.”
From the infectious personality to the continual social-media videos of him and best friend Ozzie Albies goofing off in the dugout, Acuna brings with him a stress-free environment. Even before their first postseason game at Dodger Stadium – a game in which the team didn’t play well – Acuna was visibly comfortable. His body language always indicates anything but nerves, be it three hours before Saturday game in Cleveland or at the plate with the bases loaded in a must-win playoff game.
“I love the energy and how he plays,” Snitker said. “I love watching him run the bases. His defense is getting better, it’s better than it was a year ago when he came. His baserunning will get better with experience. I love to see the energy.
“I love the fact the kid likes to play baseball. The impression I get from that young man is he likes playing baseball, and who wouldn’t if you have that skill set? I’d love to be in that body and have that skill set. Then I’d really love to play baseball.”
Already, Hall of Fame hopes don’t seem ludicrous. Acuna looks like a perennial All-Star. He had some MVP buzz entering the year, an absurd thought for a player who opened the 2017 season in Advanced-A Florida.
“His plate discipline for his age is pretty rare,” veteran teammate Nick Markakis said. “You can’t teach plate discipline. It’s a natural ability to do it. Not just his natural ability at the plate, but every aspect of his game is pretty impressive. He’s one of the better young guys I’ve been able to play with and watch come up. What he does and what he brings to a team, especially our team, is priceless.”
His trajectory is difficult to peg. Even in the unlikely event he plateaus, he’d still be a borderline top-10 player. The only true certainty of his future is he’ll spend his prime in Atlanta. Acuna signed a team-friendly eight-year deal, which included two club options, with the team earlier this month.
The conversation then centered around his decision to forgo free agency at the peak of his powers. The New York Times called him the “$100 million bargain.” But under the surface of that deal’s criticism lies a truth: The Braves might have MLB’s greatest talent, one enriched with personality and confidence, on their hands for the next decade.
No one sums it up better than Markakis: “Braves fans and his teammates in the future should be excited to play with him, to watch him, because he’s going to be one of a kind.”
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