BOSTON – If the Braves are to get back on the impressive pace that had them in first place for a while and their offense atop the National League rankings in myriad categories, they’ll likely need Dansby Swanson or Ronald Acuna, or both, to break out of recent slumps and produce as each did earlier in the season.
And hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has identified what he thinks each needs to do to help make that happen.
First we’ll examine Acuna, the most buzzed-about player in all of Florida during spring training and again upon his much-chronicled April 25 call-up to the majors.
The 20-year-old outfielder was the youngest player in the majors when he debuted April 25, and Acuna proceeded to hit .382 (13-for-34) with seven extra-base hits (two homers), eight strikeouts and a 1.138 OPS in his first eight major league games through May 3.
But in his next 19 games Acuna hit .187 (14-for-75) with four extra-base hits (two homers), 27 strikeouts and a .546 OPS before getting three hits Saturday including a homer off Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel. He struck out at least once in 17 consecutive games through Saturday including seven multi-strikeout games in his past 15.
Acuna left Sunday’s game at Boston with knee and lower-back pain after his left cleat stuck in the dirt when he planted it after crossing first base on an infield single in the seventh inning. The injury initially appeared to be serious, though he walked off the field a few minutes later after being attended to by Braves trainers.
Acuna was still being examined at a Boston hospital when the game ended to determine the extent of the knee injury.
When Acuna got to the majors, Seitzer made it a point to say that Braves coaches were going to let him get his feet wet and experience things before bombarding him with information or advice. But as his slump continued, Seitzer felt it necessary to step in last week and point out some things he had mentioned to Acuna briefly at spring training and again when he was called up, but had left alone since.
“We don’t have enough history to where I know how much he can handle and when he can handle it,” Seitzer said before Sunday’s series finale against the Red Sox. “(But) I felt like I let enough struggling go, and we were addressing more of the recognition, pitch selection, how he was getting pitched, and (how) when he was chasing a lot of sliders it basically got him late on fastballs, because he was in-between. He didn’t want to chase sliders, but he was getting beat on fastballs. Didn’t want to chase sliders, didn’t want to get beat on fastballs, still in-between, out front on (pitches and) pulling sliders foul and off-speed pitches foul.
“So, we kept saying, get back on the fastball, get back on fastball, stay in the middle of the field. He got better at that, but since Day 1, and even in spring training when he was smokin’ hot, his stride was really long in the game – not in the cage, not in BP (batting practice), but long in the game. Which always bothered me, because he’s got gifted hands but I don’t care, if you’re taking a big, long stride that foot’s got to hit (the ground) before those hands can fly. So that was one thing.
“I also felt like he wasn’t getting his hands ready, that he was picking up with his load (preparing to swing) and then his hands were kind of hanging (back) and he was trying to rush to engage his hands. So the last few days we kind of started hitting those two things, and he’s starting to feel it. So, I’m gonna back off a little bit again and just remind him if I see those two things not happening. He’s been shorter with his stride the last couple of days and hands were really ready to fire (Saturday); the outs he made, I thought were on tough pitches, but he had good (swings) on pitches that he could hit.”
Seitzer is among the many who believe Acuna is a generational-type talent. He said during spring training that when he first saw Acuna at instructional league a couple of years ago Seitzer told his own son to name his kid Acuna because he might be the next Roberto Clemente. Seitzer hasn’t changed his opinion of Acuna in any way. He wants to make sure he handles the situation properly, given Acuna’s age and prodigious talent.
“For me, this kid is ultra-special and he’s a baby,” Seitzer said. “He’s still a wild stallion that needs to be contained and controlled a little bit, but I mean, it’s going to happen. The great thing was he got off to such a hot start. The bad thing was, you can’t do anything when (someone is thriving). There were things I saw on Day 1 that I wanted to address, but you’ve got to be careful, or otherwise it’ll be your fault that they start struggling.” (Seitzer said that with emphasis on the word “your,” meaning his fault.)
Another former top prospect who’s scuffled lately is Swanson, the shortstop who had a rough first full season in the majors in 2017 but got off to such an encouraging start this season that many believed he had figured things out and was back on track. So where is he now?
Swanson hit .352 (25-for-71) with 11 extra-base hits (two homers), 12 RBIs and a .964 OPS in 17 games through April 19.
In his next 17 games, a period that was interrupted by a stint on the disabled list for a left-wrist inflammation, Swanson hit .185 (12-for-65) with two extra-base hits, four RBIs, 25 strikeouts and a .447 OPS before getting two hits Saturday at Boston including a two-run homer Saturday. He had at least two strikeouts in 10 of those 17 games.
How much of the initial slump was caused by the wrist ailment is unclear, but Seitzer, while studying video of Swanson recently, noticed a flaw in his hitting mechanics that he called to the shortstop’s attention.
“We saw some things a couple of days ago that I hadn’t noticed before,” Seitzer said Sunday morning, demonstrating as he stood in the visitor’s clubhouse how Swanson was moving his head and losing track of pitches, which he believes was a big factor in the hitter flailing at breaking balls. “When he’s tracking pitches and he goes to make contact, he’s turning his head, like to keep his head down. And it’s early. Fastballs stay on that line, but breaking balls, you don’t know where they’re going if your head’s moving this much. (Seitzer demonstrates a hitter following the pitch by moving his entire head severely.) So I showed him and he was like, holy cow. So he’s working on just keeping his head in position, tracking with his eyes and not moving his head.
“That’ll be a work in progress, but we went back (on video) to early in the season when he was hot, and he wasn’t doing it as drastically as he is now. ... He had good swings (Saturday). He got a breaking ball that he got a base hit back up the middle. Obviously the homer he had he put a good swing on it. So I’m hoping this has a lot to do with his (recent struggles) with sliders and curveballs, because there’s no reason he shouldn’t hit breaking balls. He sees them good. He’ll shut down (not swing) on chase sliders, but that’s when he’s seeing them early out of the hand. But then on the ones that he’s missing, there’s no reason he should be missing them. I think that (head movement) could have a lot to do with it, because if you’re not seeing it the last 15 feet, that’s kind of important.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com