Braves slugger Ronald Acuña Jr. is a superstar again

The Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. gestures to the dugout after hitting a solo home run against the Texas Rangers during the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. gestures to the dugout after hitting a solo home run against the Texas Rangers during the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

There was a time when I wondered whether we ever would see the 2019 version of Ronald Acuña Jr. again. He’d been very good since then, but I’m talking about the Acuña who put up MVP-level production over an entire season. The start of the pandemic in 2020 and power-and-speed sapping injuries in 2021 blunted what once seemed to be an otherworldly trajectory.

Then I went to spring training and watched Acuña hit, run the bases and play the field. I saw his familiar zest for playing the game. And then I wondered: What the heck was I thinking?

Acuña is so good that of course he would be a superstar again once he’s healthy. That’s what’s happening. At the start of this season, Acuña was 21 months removed from ACL surgery on his right knee. Now he’s pace for a year even better than 2019, when he was fifth in voting for the NL MVP award at just 21 years old.

Acuña’s home-run power had been lagging a bit. Then he hit a homer in each of the final four games of the Braves’ road trip that concluded Wednesday. Acuña returns home this weekend as the heavy favorite to win the MVP award.

“He’s the best player in the game right now, and I’m really glad he’s on our team,” Braves right-hander Spencer Strider said.

That’s not hyperbole or teammate inflation. Pretty much every number you can think of supports Strider’s view.

Acuña leads the majors in both versions of Wins Above Replacement (all statistics before Thursday’s games). He has the most hits, stolen bases, runs scored and total bases. Acuña leads MLB in slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging.

Pitchers are having a hard time striking out Acuña. Only 17 players have a lower strikeout rate, and none of them are hitting with as much power as Acuña.

Catchers struggled to throw out Acuña even before MLB changed the rules this season to incentivize base stealing. Now catchers have almost no chance to nab Acuña, who is 18-for-20 on stolen-base attempts.

Base runners aren’t advancing often on Acuña when he gets to balls in right field. He also has the second-best throwing velocity in MLB and ranks second in outfield assists.

“He’s doing it all,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “From hitting, to stealing bags, to running balls down, throwing guys out. Just an unbelievable, complete player.”

Now the Braves need to knock on wood for Acuña’s health. He was durable before the ACL injury and during his return last season. Acuña led the majors with 715 plate appearances in 2019 and he made 467 PAs over 119 games in 2022. The arc of Acuña’s career shows that if he’s in the lineup, he’ll produce at least at an All-Star level.

He was very good over 46 games of the pandemic-shortened season 2020. Acuña was producing even better numbers in 2021 when he took a fateful misstep while fielding a fly ball July 10 in Miami, tearing his ACL. The clouds that gathered over the season from that injury were lifted once the Braves acquired outfielders who helped them go on a run to the World Series championship.

But the Braves needed Acuña to be a contender in the long term. He was good in 2022, but it was clear that the surgically repaired knee was holding him back. Acuña’s extra-base hit rate was well below his norm, and he was caught stealing on 11 of 40 tries.

Those days are over.

Acuña started this season strong and has kept it going. Now he has the MVP award and a historical milestone within sight. Baseball’s 40/40 club has been closed for a while now, but Acuña can bust through that door this season. He has a chance to start a club of his own.

Only four players have hit 40 home runs and stolen 40 bases in a season: Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (’98), and Alfonso Soriano (2006). The Sabermetrics revolution persuaded MLB teams that stealing bases isn’t optimal with a success rate of less than roughly 75%. Few players are fast enough to do that and powerful enough to crank out a lot of homers.

Acuña is one of them. He just missed 40/40 in 2019, with 41 homers and 37 stolen bases on 46 attempts (80% success rate). This season he’s on pace for 40 home runs with 60 stolen bases. Rodriguez had the most steals of the 40/40 club with 46. Acuña is producing like the Pirates-era Bonds, who won his first MVP award at 26 years old.

“The kid is healthy this year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s got his legs under him. If he stays healthy, the numbers are going to be there. He doesn’t have to play for numbers. He’s so talented, the numbers are going to be there.”

I briefly forgot that when I wondered if Acuña would regain his 2019 form. Seeing him in spring training brought me back to my senses. Watching him play this season, I’m convinced he’s even better than he was in 2019.

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