Breaking down Ronald Acuna Jr.’s amazing start


So what has Ronald Acuna Jr. done for the Atlanta Braves so far this season?

Acuna’s numbers through 13 games are preposterous: .442/.492/1.000, seven home runs, 14 extra-base hits, 14 RBIs, 17 runs, 52 total bases, three stolen bases and more than a few bat flips. We entered the season anticipating that a trio of young superstars — Acuna, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto — would challenge Mike Trout and Mookie Betts for the title of “best player in the game.” The early lead: Acuna with a very loud exclamation point.

Here he is beating out a routine grounder to shortstop for an infield single:

Here he is scoring from third base on a sacrifice fly … to the second baseman:

And here he is on Thursday, hitting his seventh home run of the young season:

Acuna had another big hit for the Braves on Thursday. Down 6-5 after the Marlins had scored twice in the top of the ninth, Acuna followed Ender Inciarte‘s leadoff single with a soft line single into left field to help the Braves rally for a 7-6 walk-off victory.

Some fun factoids to Acuna’s start:

• His 14 extra-base hits in the Braves’ first 13 games tie Henry Aaron’s franchise record from 1959.

• The 14 extra-base hits tie Barry Bonds (1988) for most by a leadoff hitter through 13 team games since at least 1900.

• His 52 total bases are the most ever by a leadoff hitter through 13 games.

Acuna’s early numbers aren’t just historic for a leadoff hitter. His 1.492 OPS is seventh best through 13 games since 2000. His total-base total is second since 2000 behind the immortal Chris Shelton, who had a remarkable 62 for the Tigers in 2006. It’s a 13-game start similar to Cody Bellinger’s in 2019, a burst that propelled Bellinger to National League MVP honors.

The interesting thing about Acuna, Tatis and Soto is that heading into 2021, all Tatis and Soto really needed to do was maintain their level of play from 2020 to be MVP contenders and best-in-the-sport candidates. Tatis had hit .301/.374/.582 with 39 home runs in his first 143 games in the majors. He had improved his defense and plate discipline in 2020. Soto hit .351/.490/.695 in 2020, leading the NL in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. All he has to do is hit like that over 162. Sure, there was room for improvement around the edges, but neither had to be much better than last season to be MVP caliber.

Acuna, however, had one serious flaw in his game: strikeouts. He had an obvious area where he could improve. He struck out 188 times in 156 games in 2019 and 60 times in 46 games in 2020. He didn’t necessarily lack plate discipline, because he ranked in the 99th percentile in walk rate, but he hit .250 largely because he ranked in the 14th percentile in strikeout rate.

Thirteen games into 2021 he has cut way down on the swing-and-miss, and that’s why he’s now hitting for power and average. His swing-and-miss rate was 29.9% in 2020, but it’s down to 16.3% so far in 2021. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone is down from 19.8% to 14.6%. This is how you go from having elite bat speed and power to becoming one of the best hitters in the game.

The Marlins tried to pitch Acuna inside, going off the numbers from 2020. Acuna had a .987 OPS overall last season but hit .233 with an .883 OPS on pitches on the inner third of the plate. The home run he hit off Trevor Rogers on Thursday actually was a pretty good pitch, a 94 mph first-pitch fastball that was in off the plate. Acuna still managed to whip his bat through the zone and crush the ball to left field. Rogers had broken Acuna’s bat with a similar pitch in the third inning. He didn’t get this one up quite enough, and Acuna made him pay.

Likewise, Acuna’s single in the ninth came off a 1-1 sinker from Dylan Floro, another pitch that might have been an inch off the inside edge — not a bad pitch, but not quite at the knees where Floro wanted it. In 2021, Acuna is hitting .421/.450/.737 on inner-third pitches.

The remarkable aspect about Acuna’s hitting has always been his precocious ability to hit offspeed pitches. Check out his career numbers entering 2021:

Curveballs: .336/.397/.649
Sliders: .246/.312/.442
Changeups: .304/.387/.630
Four-seam fastballs: .259/.364/.549
Two-seam fastballs: .306/.411/.532

OK, like most hitters, he has been a little vulnerable to chasing sliders, but that’s still a pretty good line considering a lot of those sliders came with two strikes. But he actually hit better against curveballs and changeups than fastballs. That’s unique among nearly all hitters, let alone one who debuted at age 20.

You can see why the Marlins tried to jam Acuna inside with fastballs. That has been a location where teams have been able to get him out in the past. If he is indeed improving against fastballs and doing a better job of sniffing them out, then Acuna is headed to another level — an MVP level.

This much is guaranteed: You might remember Chris Shelton, the guy with the hot start we mentioned above. Shelton struggled so much after his start that he was sent down to the minors in August. I’m pretty sure that won’t happen with Acuna.

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