Braves still waiting to see the real Ronald Acuña

The Braves need Ronald Acuña to produce at his usual standard. At some point, he’ll need to pick up the slack. Ultimately, that could end up being more important for the Braves’ title chances than getting an outfielder or pitcher by the trade deadline. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

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The Braves need Ronald Acuña to produce at his usual standard. At some point, he’ll need to pick up the slack. Ultimately, that could end up being more important for the Braves’ title chances than getting an outfielder or pitcher by the trade deadline. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The Braves are looking for a left fielder, preferably one who hits lefties, before the Tuesday trade deadline. Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi no longer is an option after the Yankees acquired him late Wednesday to make MLB’s best lineup even better. But the Braves can improve their outfield without making a move. They just need Ronald Acuña to snap out of it.

Acuña is on track to post his worst month of hitting since breaking into the majors. Over his past 30 games, Acuña is hitting .220 with a .309 OBP, two homers and two doubles. The worst month of Acuña’s career until now was May 2018, when he hit .235 with a .290 OBP, four homers and three doubles over 24 games. That was Acuña’s first full month in the majors. He had been good-to-great every month since, until now.

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Since June 14, only 71 players with at least 150 plate appearances rank below Acuña in FanGraphs’ Weighted Run Created Plus metric, which measures total offensive value adjusted for ballparks (all rankings before Thursday’s games). Acuña’s 113 WRC+ for the season still is above average, but he posted an average 146 WRC+ over his first four seasons in the majors. The Braves’ superstar hitter has been merely pretty good this season.

The Braves are still winning despite Acuña’s struggles. They are 23-14 during his slump and have the National League’s third-best record (59-41). The Braves lead the Phillies by 6 ½ games for the final wild-card berth. After 100 games played, the Braves rank fourth in runs scored per game and second in home runs (all numbers before Thursday’s MLB games).

But the Braves need much better from Acuña to contend for a World Series title. The obvious rebuttal to that view is that they just won a Series without Acuña. He suffered a season-ending knee injury July 10, 2021. The season seemed lost, but it wasn’t, thanks to trades by general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

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Acuña was hitting much better then than he is now: .283 average with a .394 on-base percentage and 24 home runs over 82 games in 2021 vs. .259/.357 with six home runs over 64 games this season. Among the long list of accolades for the 2021 Braves, winning the Series with their best hitter in street clothes is at the top of the list.

The Braves are better and deeper now, but so many things had to go right for them to win it all without Acuña. They put together the right mix of players at the right time and developed an intangible spirit that helped carry them to the title. Admittedly, team chemistry is a blind spot for me as a numbers guy. Maybe the Braves can create championship synergy again even if Acuña doesn’t get on track.

I just think it’s a safer bet for the Braves to pin their hopes on Acuña rounding into form than relying on getting production from unexpected sources again. Those days were fun, but they’re over. Now the Braves need to see the real Acuña, who, you may recall, was good in three postseason appearances with the Braves (.872 on-base plus slugging percentage).

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Acuña returned from his knee injury in April, and after a slow start, it seemed he was back to doing his usual thing at the plate. He went on a tear in early June that lifted his numbers to his career norms. After 34 games, Acuña was hitting .297 with a .400 on-base percentage, six home runs, eight doubles and 11 stolen bases in 13 tries. Acuña’s hot hitting coincided with the Braves winning 14 consecutive games and climbing back in the National League East race.

But Acuña’s production spike didn’t last. He’s still swiping bases – 10 steals in 13 attempts in July – but everything else is off.

Acuña is swinging at more pitches inside the zone and making good contact, but the usual power isn’t there. Acuña’s average exit velocity on batted balls is down and so is the percentage of “hard-hit” balls, as defined by Statcast. Acuña also isn’t drawing walks as much as usual, even though he’s seeing a higher percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone than he did over his first four seasons.

Acuña hasn’t offered much insight into his struggles. He recently told Atlanta Journal-Constitution Braves beat writer Justin Toscano that he’s not working on anything specific with hitting coaches and attributed his slump to the normal rhythms of baseball. Acuña has dealt with nagging injuries this season, but he’s been in the lineup nearly every day since July 1. Since the All-Star break, he’s 4-for-21 with three walks.

Braves manager Brian Snitker gave Acuña the day off Wednesday in Philadelphia, after he went 0-for-5 the previous day. Maybe that will spark Acuña. He’s hit much better after the All-Star break than before during his career. It seems inconceivable that Acuña won’t start producing to his high standard, but it’s almost August, and it hasn’t happened yet.

Several other Braves hitters have picked up the slack. They are getting at least average production at six of nine lineup positions. They are getting elite numbers from third baseman Austin Riley, shortstop Dansby Swanson and catcher William Contreras. The hitting is lagging at three positions where injuries have sidelined key players: second base, left field and right field.

Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies has been out since June 13 while recovering from left-foot surgery. He’s expected back by September. The center field position went from a minus to a plus at the plate once rookie Michael Harris took over (he’s also been great in the field). The Braves can shore up left field with a trade by Tuesday. Even if they don’t, that would be the only weak spot in the lineup if Albies returns and hits like usual and Riley, Swanson, Contreras and Matt Olson keep up their pace.

That’s a lot of “ifs” for hitters in a game where slumps are inevitable. It’s another reason why the Braves need Acuña to produce at his usual standard. At some point, he’ll need to pick up the slack. Ultimately, that could end up being more important for the Braves’ title chances than getting an outfielder or pitcher by the trade deadline.