An analytics guru and Braves coach believe Ronald Acuña Jr. can do more. Here’s why

The reigning National League MVP declared on Day 3 of spring training that he'd like to remain with the Braves for the rest of his career.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories previewing the 2024 Atlanta Braves. The AJC will look into the keys for the team this season and hear from several of the top players as the countdown to Thursday’s season opener continues.

A year after one of the all-time great seasons by anyone who has picked up a bat, Ronald Acuña Jr. is being beckoned by history to stage a worthy sequel.

Good news for Braves fans – your ultra-talented right fielder doesn’t mind the request.

“I think that’s what he wants, to prove that what he did last year was not lucky,” Braves coach Eddie Pérez, a confidant of Acuña’s, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s what he’s going to prove.”

A related piece of information might soothe the more worrisome Braves supporter. After spending 2023 in the baseball stratosphere, Acuña’s intent to play above the clouds again is not beyond the realm of possibility. Statistically speaking, the probability of Acuña unleashing another outlier season actually is quite reasonable.

ZiPS is a projection model that noted analytics guru and writer Dan Szymborski has published for 20 years, basing it on factors such as players’ past performance, their injury history and baselines set by players dating to 1920. It’s considered one of the more accurate forecasting systems in the game. The outlook for Acuña is quite sunny.

A year after he became the first player in baseball history to hit 40 home runs and steal 70 bases in a season (with 41 and 73, respectively), the median projection for Acuña includes 43 home runs and 51 stolen bases. If he were to reach the marks, it would be only the second 40/50 season ever.

Think about that for a second. According to Szymborski’s model, the most likely outcome for Acuña is a season that no one has accomplished other than himself. That’s mind-boggling.

And it’s not even close to the best-case scenario. They’re the numbers that, if Acuña played the 2024 season 1,000 times, he would be below 500 times and above 500 times.

It does mean that there’s a 50/50 chance that he could fall short. But there’s the same chance he could do even better than 43 home runs and 51 stolen bases (along with a .304 batting average and a .590 slugging percentage). ZiPS even gives Acuña a 1-in-4 chance of hitting 50 home runs, which means the likelihood of his becoming the first 50/50 player is only a few hairs below that probability.

“Which is insane, since no one’s ever done it,” Szymborski said.

It feels a little greedy to hold any sort of expectation for a 50/50 season – or even a 40/40 season. (Acuña is one of only five players to reach 40/40 in a season, and no one has done it twice.) After a career year, it seems only reasonable for Acuña to return to earth. For instance, ZiPS projects Matt Olson to hit 37 home runs this season after his club-record 54 a year ago.

But the numbers say what they say, and they speak quite fondly of No. 13. For instance, he is one of only two players with a projected batting average of .300 or better (defending batting champ Luis Arráez being the other). Even Szymborski said he was surprised by how aggressive the projections were, and it’s his program. He pointed to two factors why ZiPS doesn’t forecast more regression to the mean for Acuña. One is that data suggests an additional bounce in his recovery from his 2021 ACL tear.

“And he’s still at an age (26) where improvement is more than a theoretical thing,” Szymborski said. “So that kind of balances out that tendency towards regression to an extent.”

The combination of Acuña’s talent and drive also may have a suggestion for the baseball gods about what they can do with their regression to the mean. Pérez, the former Braves catcher, said that Acuña is different from other players – even greats that he played with such as Chipper Jones – in his desire to play every day and in his self-confidence. Even as Acuña came back from a scare with his surgically repaired knee earlier in spring training, he insisted to manager Brian Snitker that he be in the lineup for the exhibition games. Acuña will get mad when he has to sit out, Pérez said.

“Because he wants to be on the field every day,” Pérez said. “And that’s the great thing about him. And I think he’s going to be like that forever.”

Beyond that, Acuña believes there’s room to improve. Last year, his most significant area of development probably was plate discipline. He more than halved his strikeout rate to 11.4%, sixth lowest in the major leagues. The next lowest rate among players to hit 40 home runs was teammate Marcell Ozuna, 86th at 22.6%. Undoubtedly, opposing pitchers’ reluctance to walk Acuña at the top of a potent lineup helped, but so did his commitment to laying off bad pitches and making contact.

Pérez said that Acuña told him this spring that more walks was a goal, which would lead to more stolen-base opportunities. (ZiPS projects his walk rate to increase, a common pattern for players his age.)

“He thinks, ‘Nobody’s better than me,’” Pérez said. “‘I’m the best here. No matter who’s pitching, no matter who’s going out there, I’m going to be the best.’”

For those eager to see how the Braves’ 2024 season unfolds, it’s exciting to hear. It was a remarkable thing to watch Acuña play in 2023. He didn’t do something remarkable in every game – a leadoff home run, a sprint into the gap to track down a fly ball or a wedding in the morning and a grand slam that night – but it sure seemed like it.

And now, starting Thursday in Philadelphia, he’ll start it again, unafraid of the pursuit of greatness. With good health, why not?

“I believe he can do better numbers,” Pérez said. “I believe so.”

It’s not only Pérez. After last season, Acuña got a tattoo on his chest commemorating his 40/70 accomplishment. The new ink now shares space with one he commissioned after reaching 30/30 in 2019.

“And he said, ‘I’ve got more room for more,” Pérez said. “That’s impressive. The kid believes in himself. And I think he’s going to do it.”

Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. reacts after popping a ball during the third inning of Atlanta Braves’ home opener spring training baseball game at CoolToday Park, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin /


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Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. poses for Atlanta Braves team photographer Kevin D. Liles during the team's photo day at CoolToday Park, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin /


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