Ronald Acuña Jr.’s exploits were already well-documented, but what he is doing in 2023 gives reason to believe the best may still be yet to come.
If it is hard to believe, just ask his Atlanta Braves teammates.
“I mean, he’s probably one of the best players in baseball year in and year out, and that’s absolutely being showcased this year,” Braves first baseman Matt Olson said when asked to describe the numbers Acuña posted in the first half of the season.
Those statistics are unparalleled across Major League Baseball and could add up to one of the best seasons in baseball history if Acuña maintains his current rate.
Acuña is on pace for 39 home runs and 75 stolen bases, giving him a legitimate shot at becoming just the fifth player in baseball history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season. He could also become the only member of the 40-40 club to do so with more than 50 stolen bases.
If that does not work out, Acuña may just become the first man in MLB history to hit 30 home runs and steal more than 60 bases.
He is quite simply combining power and speed at a level never before seen.
It is not all about home runs, either. Acuña is pacing for 217 hits to go along with 80 walks while striking out a career-low 89 times. He has practically cut his strikeout rate in half while posting a career-best .408 on-base percentage.
That fact alone has been enough to ignite the Atlanta lineup, but then he creates havoc on the basepaths.
“Whether it’s a walk or a base hit, the next thing you know he’s in scoring position,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “What he’s doing this year is incredible and it’s fun to watch.”
Riley is among a handful of homegrown stars who played alongside Acuña through the Braves’ minor league system. While Acuña eventually became the top prospect in baseball, it did not take long for his teammates to recognize the considerable toolset he possessed upon taking the field.
“I laugh because he’s always exceeded expectations and expectations were always very high,” Braves pitcher Michael Soroka said. “I remember showing up in Danville and Riley had already gotten called up (there) at that point and was hitting. Ronald showed up shortly after — a 160-pound 17-year-old. I told the guys, and I got laughed at, that Ronald might actually have more power than Riley. I got ridiculed, but come to find out a couple of years later, it’s probably true.”
Just two years after Soroka’s story took place, Acuña won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
It did not take long for Acuña to establish himself as one of the best players in the game despite also being one of the youngest in the majors. After a strong 2019 campaign and still more progress at the plate in the shortened 2020 season, Acuña was off to perhaps his best season yet in 2021.
That came to an abrupt end when he tore his right ACL just before the All-Star break and was forced to miss Atlanta’s World Series run.
Acuña returned just nine months later and flashed some of his considerable skills last season, though it felt like he was still a work in progress. The numbers were not as gaudy, but Acuña pressed on, causing some to wonder if he would be able to recapture the pre-surgery levels of production.
“I think he got a little bit of an unfair rap last year as well,” Olson said. “Fans and people around the league are accustomed to seeing what he’s doing now, which is the top 0.1% of talent in baseball. People (weren’t) necessarily talking bad about him, but not giving him the credit for the year he had last year. It’s not like he was just completely unproductive. I think he hit around .275 in the leadoff spot, was still running, all straight off an ACL injury, which has to be hard to trust. It’s going to affect your swing. I think he got a little bit of a bad rap last year, but it’s clear that he’s had that extra time to record and fully get the trust factor back. It’s fun to watch.”
Good health continues to be Acuña’s explanation for his 2023 success as well. No matter how many times or how many ways he is asked to explain it, being pain-free is what Acuña believes is allowing him to do the kinds of things that very few players in the game are capable of doing.
“I just know he’s healthy. That’s the thing,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “When he came to spring training, it was like you could just see that bounce in his step again. It was different from the first day of drills. I love it for him that now he’s through all that and stronger than ever and playing the game that he loves like he’s able to play it.”
Acuña’s prolific power and on-base skills lend themselves to being one of the top run producers in the game. At the All-Star break, he not only led the majors with 79 runs scored in 89 games but also drove in 55 runs out of the leadoff spot for Atlanta.
If his current paces hold, Acuña could become the first player since Alex Rodriguez in 2007 to score 140 runs and collect 100 RBIs in the same season, something that has happened just 40 times since 1900 and only seven times in the past 73 years.
However, Acuña is the only player on that list putting up those kinds of numbers as a leadoff hitter.
Those kinds of accomplishments — and many more — make Acuña the clear frontrunner for Most Valuable Player in the NL. Just seven Braves players have ever won an MVP, and even some of those men have to marvel at what Acuña is capable of doing.
“I’ve said it many times. I believe that this young man is the most talented player to ever don a Braves uniform,” former Braves third baseman and Hall of Famer Chipper Jones said during the team’s Bally Sports broadcast June 8.
While Jones’ statement covers countless Hall of Famers and superstars over the Braves’ 152-year franchise history, it is hard to argue the talent factor. At just 25 years old, Acuña could be set up to win multiple MVP awards, which would place him in an even more exclusive club in club history.
Only one player has done that in a Braves uniform, and even he is in awe of Acuña’s abilities.
“I don’t even know how to quantify his numbers and statistics and what he’s doing,” former Braves outfielder and two-time MVP Dale Murphy said. “Obviously, he’s already got 40 stolen bases, and he’s on his way to hitting 40 home runs. That’s just a different level. I don’t know how to relate to what he’s doing.”
This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal. Find it here.