“I’m such a fan of these guys and want them to do well,” Jones said. “I just get nervous for them, and I shouldn’t be because they’re one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the game.”
Jones being a reluctant Braves TV viewer, Ronald Acuña Jr. can take it as a high honor that Jones was willing to endure watching him hit live Thursday against the Dodgers, when he hit his 30th home run of the season to become the first major league player in history with 30 home runs and 60 stolen bases in a season.
“I watched it,” Jones said. “It’s a historic homer. It kind of flies under the radar historically, but (we’re) talking about something that’s never been done.”
Jones slowed as he completed the last sentence, emphasizing the historic nature of Acuña’s clearing the 30/60 mark in his team’s 133rd game, no less. It allowed Jones to revisit an eyebrow-raising statement he made earlier this year about the superstar right fielder.
“I’ve been around this organization for a long time,” he said, drawing out “long, “and this kid is without a doubt the most talented baseball player that I think has ever donned this uniform. I will stand by that. And when you do something that’s never been done in a game before, that’s pretty special.”
It is an audacious statement, and not everyone has agreed with Jones since he made it. The Hall of Fame has inducted no less than 15 players whose careers were played at least primarily with the Braves, including Jones himself. Jones probably isn’t prepared to compare the merits of Acuña and Boston Braves outfielder Hugh Duffy, who in 1894 led the majors with a .440 batting average and 18 home runs. But he knows the statement encompasses the late and legendary Hank Aaron, whom Jones was fortunate to call a friend and for whom a case can be made as the greatest player ever.
Talent is not the same thing as greatness, and anyone would recognize that Acuña has a long way to go to even approach Aaron’s accomplishments. (Besides the 755 home runs, Aaron holds the all-time records for RBIs and total bases and was a career .305 hitter and hit .320 eight times. In his age-25 season, the same one in which Acuña is blowing out the record books, Aaron led the majors in batting average, slugging percentage and hits.)
Regardless, Jones’ opinion carries weight.
“That was kind of the mark that I thought this kid could leave on the game from the first time I saw him,” Jones said.
It was 2017. The club asked Jones to work with Ozzie Albies, then with Triple-A Gwinnett, on his switch-hitting.
“That was the first time I saw Acuña in the cage,” he said. “And it was loud.”
Jones marvels at what Acuña has accomplished, describing him as the total package.
“I never thought he would hit .330, but yet he’s doing it,” Jones said. “I never thought he would steal 70 bases, but he’s going to do it. I always thought he could hit 30-plus, 40-plus homers in a year.”
Jones appreciates that he’s not chasing bad pitches and is drawing walks. Before Tuesday’s game versus St. Louis, Acuña’s strikeout rate (11.9%) was in the 97th percentile in the majors. His previous best was 23.6%. With 71 walks, he was five shy of tying his career high. To Jones, the sum of Acuña is far more than home runs and stolen bases.
“You don’t strikeout and you walk, and that’s how you hit .300,” Jones said, a bit of an expert on the topic with 10 .300 seasons in his career. “He’s taking it to the next level at .330 with 30 (home runs). Probably going to have 100 RBIs, going to score 140, 150 runs. Man, this is epic. It’s flat-out epic.”
Jones knows, too, that stealing 60 bases isn’t just a result of getting on base often and being fast.
“You hit the ground that many times, you’re throwing your body around, it’s going to take its toll,” said Jones, whose season high was 25 stolen bases. “We’ve been fortunate that hasn’t happened yet. We’ll knock on wood, keep our fingers crossed it doesn’t.”
Jones sees Acuña’s tour de force season as being motivated by missing most of the Braves’ 2021 World Series title season after a season-ending ACL tear.
“I think he’s really focused on doing something special right now,” Jones said. “I think he’s heard enough of, ‘Well, they won the World Series without me.’ Now he’s like, ‘OK, OK. Yeah, I’m taking that personally, and I’m going to put a team full of superstars on my back and here we go.’”
That is one way that Acuña has separated himself from his peers and stamped himself as the National League MVP in Jones’ view.
“He can take a team that’s full of really, really good players and still put ‘em on his back and say, ‘Let’s go, boys,’” Jones said. “That’s how special he is.”
Having won three of four against the Dodgers this past weekend to stretch their lead for home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs to six games after the series, Jones said he felt like manager Brian Snitker could think about finding days for his everyday players to sit out. First baseman Matt Olson, third baseman Austin Riley and Acuña have played in all of the team’s first 136 games.
Acuña has a month left to add to a truly unique and unforgettable regular season. Jones has little choice but to force himself to watch.
“We call him a power hitter, but yet he’s going out and stealing 70 bases,” he said. “That’s crazy to me.”
Jones’ appreciation of the craziness that is Ronald Acuña is deeper than most, but he’s hardly alone.