The great Ronald Acuna is getting even greater

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker comments on the growth and maturity outfielder Brian Snitker has demonstrated at the plate to start the 2021 season.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

He’s first among qualifying National League hitters in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. He leads in hits and total bases. He’s tied for second in home runs, tied for third in stolen bases. He leads in weighted runs created plus, a FanGraphs metric. He leads in WAR, as calculated by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, by a position player.

He’s Ronald Acuna. He’s great. He has been great since … well, since he signed with the Braves in July 2014. He was 16 then. He’s 23 now. He was MLB’s top prospect when he arrived in the majors. There should come a day — next Thursday, maybe? — when it becomes clear he’s the best player, not counting Mike Trout, in the sport. There could come a day — next year, maybe? — when we don’t need the Trout qualifier.

Ronald Acuna stats

He’s Ronald Acuna. He’s beyond belief.

Of all his glittering numbers, here’s the one that resonates: He has played nine games in 2021; he has struck out six times. That’s once every 1.5 games. Over his first three big-league seasons, he struck out 371 times in 313 games, or once every .84 games. Acuna became a great player because he runs fast — could any other active player have turned a grounder at the shortstop into a single, the way he did in Sunday’s first inning? — and hits the ball hard. The way he works at his craft could well make him the greatest active player.

Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna (13) toes first base before the ball reaches Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins (17) in the first inning Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna (13) toes first base before the ball reaches Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins (17) in the first inning Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

That’s the part we cannot know about a phenom — even “a generational talent,” as Braves pitcher Drew Smyly pronounced Acuna on Sunday. We know pitchers will adjust; will he recalibrate in such a way as to foil their recalibrations? Jeff Francoeur was never as successful as in his first three seasons. Jason Heyward was an All-Star only as a rookie.

If Acuna never has a better season than his first three — he finished 12th or higher in the NL MVP vote each time; he followed his Rookie of the Year award with two Silver Sluggers — he’d still be big-time. The first 11 days of his fourth season lead us to believe he’s bound and determined to get bigger and better.

On Sunday night, Acuna went 3-for-4 — that infield single, another single, a sac fly and another massive home run — that led his manager to say: “He’s showed all five tools since we’ve started play.” A running catch on the warning track kept the Braves in front in Friday’s home opener. He has mustered two or more hits in five of the Braves’ nine games. He has had an extra-base hit in each of those five.

He has struck out once over the past six games. His strikeout percentage is 15.4, down from 29.7 in 2020. His hard-hit-ball percentage is 64.5 percent, up from 57 percent last year. Yes, nine games constitute a small sample size. No, he’s not apt to be hitting .444 over a full season. (Nobody ever has.) But still: You take Acuna’s gifts and add his competitive fire and his attention to detail, and you’ve got way more than an All-Star. You’ve got, as Sports Illustrated labeled Reggie Jackson in his MVP year, a SuperDuperStar.

Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm (28) slide toward home as Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud (16) secures the ball before applying a tag in the ninth inning Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. Bohm was ruled safe, though Atlanta argued he never touched home plate. Philadelphia won 7-6. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm (28) slide toward home as Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud (16) secures the ball before applying a tag in the ninth inning Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. Bohm was ruled safe, though Atlanta argued he never touched home plate. Philadelphia won 7-6. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

After Sunday’s game, manager Brian Snitker pushed aside the raging debate over the worth of replay review. (Though it wasn’t much of a debate. It’s clear Alec Bohm’s toe never met home plate.) Of Acuna, Snitker said: “I’ve seen that progression, I’ve seen that growth, I’ve seen that maturity — especially this year. I’ve always said, God bless him, he’s going to have fun playing the game. He’s like a kid in the back end of the schoolyard. But the growth and the maturity of the young man has been phenomenal.”

Then: “Yes, he’s growing up. He’s maturing as a player, as a person. It’s a neat thing to see. He’s such a good kid. Everybody loves him. The enthusiasm, that infectious nature that he has — but he’s maturing. I just noticed in spring training he’s kind of grown up. Then you watch his batting practice and how he approaches the game, the adjustments that he’s made. You watch his daily work ethic, working on his defensive side of the game and his throwing. It’s a really cool thing to watch.”

Did Acuna’s admiration of the 456-foot home run he launched off Zack Wheeler on Friday endear him to the pitcher? No, but pitchers who yield 456-foot home runs tend to be tetchy. It’s not bragging if you can back it up. Acuna is 23. Imagine him at 26. Snitker again: “The scary part is that he’s going to continue to get better.”

Acuna’s weekend numbers: 9-for-13, three doubles, two homers, four runs, four RBIs, no strikeouts. He made a splendid catch. His home runs traveled an aggregate 884 feet. He reached base by running 31.0 feet per second, per MLB Stats, which advised: “Elite is 3.0 ft/sec.”

Of Mean Joe Greene in his irresistible prime, it was said: “He does what he wants out there.” Nine games into his fourth season, Ronald Acuna is doing what he wants, and he wants it all.

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