Following a roughly three-week stint in the minors, the Braves promoted Acuna after the team lost the first two games of a road trip in Cincinnati. Acuna homered in his second game and helped the Braves to a 7-3 trip that helped turn the fantasy of a winning season into reality.
One of the more hyped prospects in recent memory, Acuna hit .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers, 70 RBIs and 75 runs scored in 111 games. He played exceptional defense while providing speed on the bases (16 steals and often aggressive running to reach scoring position).
Soto slashed .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers, 25 doubles and 70 RBIs in 116 games. He didn’t grade as favorably as Acuna defensively, but FanGraphs pegged them equal in WAR (wins above replacement). Baseball Reference rated Acuna a higher WAR, 4.1 against 3.0.
Washington promoted Soto in late May. He’d been wrecking minor-league pitching, though he had just 31 at-bats at the Double-A level. The Nationals were struggling and in need of a spark. As great as Soto was, the team slowly fell too far behind the Braves and Phillies (Washington ultimately caught Philadelphia and finished second).
The story of Acuna’s season was manager Brian Snitker’s decision to hit his rookie leadoff following the All-Star break. It was that decision which might’ve won the Braves the National League East.
Desperate for a spark after sluggishly stumbling into the break, Acuna – who hadn’t hit particularly well himself – was thrust into the lead-off role. He became the ultimate tone-setter, from his lead-off homers to hit-and-steals to his electrifying demeanor.
Acuna hit .322 with a 1.028 OPS across 68 games in the second half. He had 38 extra-base hits, half of which left the yard. Fourteen of his steals came post-break.
There was also the mid-summer moment that Marlins pitcher Jose Urena intentionally plucked Acuna after he’d led off three consecutive games with homers, homered eight times in eight days and became the youngest to go deep in five straight games.
Urena’s misdeed fired up Braves’ coaches and players, not that they needed the motivation. It illustrated a come-together family moment that helped draw an already tight clubhouse closer. Acuna, of course, homered against the Marlins when they met in Miami a week later.
The rookie hammered eight lead-off home runs, a new franchise record. The climax was that August, when he hit .336 with 11 homers and 21 RBIs, helping the Braves stay afloat in a tight race with Philadelphia.
He also hit a grand slam in the Braves’ lone postseason win over the Dodgers, the first playoff game at SunTrust Park.
When the Braves needed him, he often came through: Acuna hit .364 with two outs and runners in scoring position (44 at-bats). His table-setting was admirable, with a first-inning average of .322 along with 16 extra-base hits and nine RBIs.
Two phenoms, Acuna and Soto have already carved out a close friendship. They’ll be dueling for the division for years to come. The pair is the future of not just the NL East, but the entire sport.