The best player in baseball resides in Atlanta. This was always something of the forecast for Ronald Acuña Jr. when he came up through the Braves system. It just wasn’t believed his rise to the top would be quite so ruthlessly achieved.
Acuña currently leads baseball in homers with six (tied with Detroit’s Wilson Ramos); is 4th in batting average (.447); 2nd in slugging with a 1.000 percentage (what?); 2nd in wOBA, and second in wRC+ with a 285. The last number means that through the first two weeks of the season, Acuña has been three times better than average, trailing whatever asteroid it was that Byron Buxton ate before the season.
Acuña’s underlying numbers are even more absurd. He’s seen a 5 MPH jump in his average exit velocity to 97.4 MPH. And while the new baseball has seen a rise in exit velocities, that alone does not account for that kind of jump. That mark is third best in baseball. Acuña is also thundering the ball to the tune of a 65 percent hard-hit rate (balls with an exit velo over 95 MPH), fourth-best in the league. But that tends to happen when your average exit velocity is over the hard-hit threshold. Acuña and others may cause that to change before the year is out (all Statcast data per BaseballSavant.com).
Perhaps most impressive is that so far this season, Acuña has cut his strikeout-rate in half, to just 14 percent so far on the season. He had been prone to Ks in the first three years of his career, walking back to the dugout from home plate with bat in hand in over a quarter of his PAs every season until this one.
So where is the added discipline coming from? Acuña is chasing almost nothing, swinging at just 16 percent of pitches outside of the zone. But when pitchers come inside the zone, he’s been ravenous, swinging at 73 percent of those pitches (the league average is 67 percent, per Fangraphs). All this led to Acuña making contact on 86 percent of his swings, some 10 percent or more than he’s ever managed before. And when your contact is as loud as Acuña’s, and you make a lot of it, you get the pinball numbers he’s putting up.
For graphic evidence, it used to be you could get Acuña to chase offspeed pitches out of the zone to get him out. Here’s how that’s changed, per StatCast:
Yep, he hasn’t chased a splitter or change-up out of the zone all season. Perhaps more worryingly for pitchers:
Acuña hasn’t swung and missed at a curveball or slider all season. It’s early yet, and Statcast has him only seeing 30 of those so far, but that’s still dizzying, especially as he had been whiffing on a third of the ones he was throughout his career before. If he can’t be fooled, and he tears a hole in time and space every time he makes contact, what exactly are you supposed to do with him?
Oh, and he can do stuff like this.
Acuña’s CGI-seeming start hasn’t helped the Braves avoid a wonky 4-8 beginning to their season, thanks to a rotation that keeps accidentally setting off all the pyro from a Motley Crüe show. Max Fried is now on the DL after struggling to actually throw a ball 60 feet, and Mike Soroka isn’t due back for a bit yet. That should even out in a short amount of time though, given the rotation as a whole has nearly a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s been a lot of bad luck, as the Braves are the runaway leaders in home runs surrendered per fly ball. Maybe they’re still using the old balls.
When they do charge up the standings, it’ll be Acuña at the fore. If Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to be battling injury all season, then Acuña looks likely to pick up the torch as the most exciting player in the game.