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Ronald Acuna Is Quietly Getting Better. And That’s Scary.

When the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Atlanta Braves for a three-game series starting tonight, all eyes will be on a precocious young star who’s taken his game to the next level early this season. We are, of course, talking about L.A.’s Cody Bellinger … right? Certainly Bellinger has been great so far, and he was just named the National League’s player of the month for April. But “precocious young star” could also fit Bellinger’s counterpart on the Braves: Ronald Acuña Jr. Acuña’s ongoing development as a superstar hasn’t gotten as much attention as Bellinger’s, particularly during his recent slump and injury absence over the weekend, but Atlanta’s 21-year-old left fielder is showing important signs of improvement, too, despite surface-level numbers that can’t match those of his Dodger rival.

Acuña’s 2018 rookie season already put him in the history books. After being held down in Triple-A until April 25, he posted the 10th-best adjusted on-base plus slugging (OPS+) of any player age 20 or younger in a season since 1901,1 edging out fellow NL East outfielder Juan Soto in the process, and he had the 14th-most wins above replacement2 per game3 of any 20-or-under hitter over the same span, besting Bryce Harper, Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays.

Ronald Acuña Jr.’s rookie year was historic

For MLB hitters age 20 or younger in a season since 1901, greatest adjusted on-base plus slugging and wins above replacement per game

Adj. on-base plus slugging Wins above replacement per game
Player Year Age OPS+ Player Year Age WAR/G
1 Mike Trout 2012 20 168 Mike Trout 2012 20 .074
2 Ty Cobb 1907 20 167 Alex Rodriguez 1996 20 .064
3 Mel Ott 1929 20 165 Mel Ott 1929 20 .051
4 Al Kaline 1955 20 162 Al Kaline 1955 20 .051
5 Mickey Mantle 1952 20 162 Ted Williams 1939 20 .046
6 Alex Rodriguez 1996 20 161 Mickey Mantle 1952 20 .046
7 Ted Williams 1939 20 160 Ty Cobb 1907 20 .046
8 Rogers Hornsby 1916 20 151 Frank Robinson 1956 20 .041
9 Jimmie Foxx 1928 20 148 Jimmie Foxx 1928 20 .040
10 Ronald Acuña Jr. 2018 20 145 Jason Heyward 2010 20 .039
11 Juan Soto 2018 19 143 Vada Pinson 1959 20 .038
12 Frank Robinson 1956 20 143 Manny Machado 2013 20 .037
13 Dick Hoblitzell 1909 20 143 Rogers Hornsby 1916 20 .037
14 Mel Ott 1928 19 139 Ronald Acuña Jr. 2018 20 .035
15 Ken Griffey Jr. 1990 20 136 Bryce Harper 2012 19 .034
16 Sherry Magee 1905 20 134 Sherry Magee 1905 20 .034
17 Bryce Harper 2013 20 133 Ken Griffey Jr. 1990 20 .033
18 Tony Conigliaro 1965 20 133 Bryce Harper 2013 20 .033
19 Jason Heyward 2010 20 131 Willie Mays 1951 20 .032
20 Vada Pinson 1959 20 129 Mel Ott 1928 19 .032

Min. 450 plate appearances for OPS+ leaders and 100 games for WAR/G leaders

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

At a glance, Acuña’s early 2019 numbers actually represent a slight downgrade from that stellar rookie campaign. His OPS+ has dipped from 145 to 134, thanks to a big decline in slugging percentage (.552 to .487). Relatedly, Acuña is hitting home runs less frequently, and his isolated power is down nearly 70 points. It looks sure like a mild sophomore slump — albeit one we should all be so lucky to have.

Under the surface, however, Acuña has made some impressive strides this year in two important areas: plate discipline and defense.

Acuña’s 2018 walk rate of 9.2 percent was already better than league average — particularly impressive considering the whole “20-year-old rookie” factor — but his 2019 rate is up to 12.7 percent, which ranks 35th in baseball. He’s seeing more pitches (4.61 per plate appearance, second-most in baseball) and consistently getting into good hitter’s counts more often than he did a year ago. At the same time, Acuña has been whiffing a lot less so far in 2019. He struck out in 25.3 percent of his plate appearances last season, which ranked him around the bottom quarter of MLB hitters, but this year that rate is down to 21.8 percent, comfortably in the top half of the league.

Those changes give Acuña an overall strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.72, which is the second-lowest in baseball for a hitter his age. Since a player’s batting eye is a core leading indicator for his underlying hitting skills, Acuña’s improved strike-zone judgment is a great sign of his ongoing development at the plate.

The other area in which Acuña has improved is defense. We combined the Ultimate Zone Rating figures found at FanGraphs and the Defensive Runs Saved numbers at Baseball-Reference.com and found that Acuña was no better than an average outfielder last season. (And he might have been worse than that — another prominent metric, Michael Humphreys’ Defensive Regression Analysis, considered him to be 3 runs below average.) This season, Acuña’s numbers are up no matter which source you consult; he’s on pace to have improved by about 10 runs — or 1 entire win — if he ends up playing the same number of innings as in 2018.4

The advanced fielding stats may just be catching up with what the eye test already knew about Acuña’s defensive potential. FanGraphs’ annual poll of fan fielding assessments had already judged Acuña to be one of the most talented left fielders in the game last season, thanks to his tremendous first step and speed to the ball off the bat. But now that he’s putting those skills to use in the metrics, Acuña’s potential value looks even greater: Per 162 team games, he’s tracking for 7.0 WAR this season, which basically matches what Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Pujols had at the same age.

Acuña’s dip in power this year is a bit puzzling, particularly since his Statcast hitting metrics — including exit velocity, hard-hit ball rate and “barrels” (balls hit with the ideal velocity and launch angle) — are also down across the board. Some of that might come down to the injury that kept him out of Sunday’s game: “It’s been on and off,” Acuña told reporters through an interpreter after picking up four hits but exiting Saturday’s game early. “I’ve felt it for a while, so it wasn’t today. Today, it just kind of grabbed at me after I had a quick swing like that and got out of the box pretty quickly. That’s when I felt it. But I felt good coming into today, as always.”

But assuming his back isn’t an ongoing issue, Acuña should get plenty more pitches to crush as the season goes on, given his improved willingness to wait out favorable counts. Acuña may not be launching balls out of the park left and right like Bellinger at the moment — he hasn’t homered since April 16, in fact — but the foundation of his game still has superstardom stamped into it as much as ever.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 450 plate appearances.

  2. Averaging together the WAR versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. Minimum 100 games.

  4. Which probably undersells his potential improvement, because Acuña was limited to 111 games last year between injuries and Atlanta’s service-time chicanery.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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