Before Ronald Acuna made his major-league debut, everyone had a comparison.
Hank Aaron. Alex Rodriguez. Roberto Clemente. Ken Griffey Jr.
The theme: Superstar athletes, face-of-the-franchise talents, Hall of Famers. Acuna came in with the heaviest of expectations, and so far he’s fulfilled his promise. That stems beyond his on-field performance.
NBA teams often like to have a “spark” off the bench. A guard who can drop 20 on random nights when the offense is struggling. NFL teams like having a potent punt returner or a big-play threat at running back.
Baseball has several forms of spark plugs, though few have accomplished what the 20-year-old Acuna is doing. The Braves, sitting a half-game out of first place, moved Acuna to leadoff on July 20.
They’re now sitting atop the National League East by 5-1/2 games. Acuna has hit .326 with 18 homers, 34 RBIs, 43 runs scored and 12 steals in 50 second-half games.
His start rivals or surpasses most Hall of Famers. He’s jolted himself far ahead of Washington’s Juan Soto in the rookie-of-the-year race, in the eyes of some. But it’s not just the numbers. It’s tone-setting, stepping into the box and immediately delivering a shot in the arm.
“I don’t think I ever have managed (a guy with such energy),” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s special. He’s a special talent.”
Acuna should warrant a top-10 finish in the NL MVP race, which would’ve been borderline unimaginable earlier in the season, when the Braves opted to leave him in the minors until late April.
Snitker gave more thought to his comment, and another Acuna comparison was born. Snitker has been part of the Braves organization for over four decades. He’s seen about everything the team’s Atlanta-era history has to offer.
And he invoked the name of a former beloved Braves player when searching for something comparable to Acuna’s enthusiasm.
“The closest guy I had like that in the minor leagues was Rafael Furcal,” Snitker said. “His energy, everything he brought to the team, he was just infectious. He was a guy you couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark to see. He had that type of impact on the field, too. His skill set, the things he could do, they’re similar in that regard.
“Different players, but what they bring to the team, the energy, all that, they’re very similar. And he did that here (in the majors), too. The same energy. Energized the ballclub, clubhouse and team.”
A speedy shortstop, Furcal played for the Braves from 2000-05. He hit .284 with a .348 on-base percentage and 189 stolen bases, an average exceeding 30 swipes a season.
Acuna projects beyond the player Furcal was, which is by no means a criticism of the former three-time All-Star. The Braves won the NL East in each of Furcal’s seasons, and he was oft-lauded for his speed, athletic ability and energy – hence the reference to Acuna.