Ronald Acuna Jr. has hit the ground running since making his MLB debut on April 25, 2018. With opening day unclear, let’s take a deeper look into the numbers he’s posted up to this point in his career.
The 2018 NL Rookie of the Year mashed 26 home runs and stole 16 bags as a rookie, slashing a .293/.366/.552 in 111 games with the big club. He struggled in the playoffs, posting a .673 OPS in 17 plate appearances, but he did drive in four runs. At age-20, Acuna finished 12th in NL MVP voting, quite an accomplishment for someone who missed 50-plus games.
In 2019, Acuna took another step toward superstardom. Acuna led the NL in runs and stolen bases, showing a knack for run creation with his ability on the basepaths. As the leadoff hitter for the NL East champion Braves, Acuna tattooed 41 baseballs into the seats, contributing to his mammoth 101 RBI despite batting leadoff in 118 games. Acuna was named to his first All-Star team, and he finished fifth in NL MVP voting. Acuna won a Silver Slugger award. He flirted with the 40-40 club, but he ended with 37 steals.
Through two seasons, Acuna has been a well above average hitter by nearly any metric. He has an OPS+ of 130 although his 2019 season failed to match his crazy 143 OPS+ in 2018. He has 49 batting runs and six base runs. In 2019, Acuna posted the eighth-highest offensive WAR in the NL, finishing in the same ballpark as Trevor Story and Juan Soto.
Defensively, Acuna appeals to statheads and highlight watchers alike. Acuna has 16 fielding runs through two seasons and a positive defensive WAR in both seasons. Acuna made his fair share of highlight-reel plays in both left field and center field.
Ronald Acuna offers positional versatility in the outfield with his ability to play all three outfield positions at a high level. He may not be a Gold Glove-level fielder at the moment, but Acuna is a certifiably good defensive player.
Grab your shovels
Digging deeper into Acuna’s game, he is a better hitter against lefties than righties (.901 OPS versus lefties, .878 versus lefties). In particular, Acuna mashed left-handed starters with a 1.008 OPS.
In terms of home/road splits, Acuna shows little variation. He gets on-base slightly more often at home, but he slugs a higher percentage away from SunTrust Park.
The Elephant in the room
One major flaw in Ronald Acuna’s game is his mammoth strikeout rate. Among National Leaguers, only Eugenio Suarez had more strikeouts in 2019. While striking out has less of a stigma in 2020 than it did in the past, Acuna’s inability to put the ball in play sacrifices his ability to get on-base. In the second half of the season, Acuna struck out on 34.6 percent of his at-bats. Despite homering every 13.3 at-bats, the strikeout rate was an eyesore. Acuna is better than average at getting on-base when he puts the ball in play, so his high strikeout totals can prevent dozens of runs over the course of the season.
Similar to his home/road splits, Acuna was eerily similar in the first and second half of the season. In the first half of the season, Acuna got on-base much more often, but he slugged 28 points lower than he did in the second half.
In terms of month-by-month variation, Acuna’s best month was June. He slashed .331/.403/.597 across 139 plate appearances. Acuna also had a productive August, slugging .600 and hitting 11 homers in 115 at-bats.
The Braves won a lot, but when they didn’t, Acuna was an even better hitter relative to the average hitter. sOPS+ is a metric used to measure hitters with respect to the average split. 100 is average, and Acuna posted a 144 sOPS+ in losses. As to be expected, his numbers in losses look pedestrian compared to his numbers in wins, but Acuna was comparatively great despite the Braves playing poorly at times.
Acuna is quirky:
One bizarre Acuna stat compares his effectiveness as a leadoff hitter in 2018 and 2019. In 2018, Acuna posted an OPS of 1.279 when he was the first batter of the game and a 1.092 when he led off an inning. His sOPS+ as the first batter of the game was 233, more than two times better than the average leadoff hitter. His sOPS+ as the leadoff batter of an inning was an equally absurd 197.
However, Acuna struggled to find a rhythm from the leadoff spot in 2019. He posted a paltry .675 OPS with a below-average 76 sOPS+ as the leadoff batter. His slugging percentage was nearly cut in half, and he posted more total bases in 62 2018 at-bats than 112 2019 at-bats from the leadoff role. Restricting his stats to only the games that he batted leadoff, his 2018 OPS of 1.042 slipped to an OPS of .893 (still great, but it is a massive slip).
Jumping back to his 2019 marks, Acuna crushed the baseball in 3-0 counts, getting on-base in 12 of 13 plate appearances, getting 10 walks and a pair of homers: an OPS of 3.590. Acuna was dynamic after early in counts, posting a sOPS+ of 179 on the first pitch, a sOPS+ of 183 with zero balls, and a sOPS+ of 153 with zero strikes. Acuna had below-average marks in later counts. In particular, his sOPS+ in 0-2 counts was 86, and his sOPS+ in 3-1 counts was a fairly terrible 84.
The Clutch Gene:
In terms of clutchness, Ronald Acuna is one of the more dynamic players in baseball. With runners in scoring position, Acuna had a sOPS+ of 149. In situations that Baseball-Reference describes as “late & close,” Acuna mashed a sOPS+ of 155. In high leverage situations, Acuna had a sOPS+ of 133, and he posted a .416 on-base percentage. According to sOPS+, Acuna was an above-average hitter in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. Stats like these can be misleading at times, but Acuna consistently came up clutch in big spots for the Braves.
What does it mean for 2020?
In the 2019 playoffs, Acuna flexed his muscles, posting an OPS of 1.454 in Atlanta’s five-game series loss to the Cardinals. Over the course of a full season, it would be impossible to maintain that OPS, but the seeds were planted that could propel Acuna to the best of the best hitters in all of Major League Baseball.
With the 2020 season unlikely to be a full slate of games, Acuna’s counting stats will likely take a hit, but there is no reason for Acuna to regress with his rate stats.
Assuming the 2020 season is played, Ronald Acuna should be the best Brave, and he should be among the top 10 players in the NL.
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