There are a lot of unanswered questions lingering this offseason for Braves fans. Is Austin Riley going to play third? Who’s going to play left? Who is the closer? When will we see Pache take over center permanently? What will be done with Ender Inciarte? How much money do the Braves have to spend? Will the Braves re-sign Marcell Ozuna despite there still not being a concrete answer as to whether the NL will have the DH in 2021? When will some idiot waste a bunch of time analytically ranking each of Ronald Acuna’s leadoff home runs?
Remain calm. I’m here to help with one of these questions. If you skipped the title of the article and are wondering which question that is, first let me commend you for your bravery. You’ll just read anything, won’t you? And second, let me welcome you to the objective (not to be confused with objectively long), very serious, purely mathematical, and not at all idiotic ranking of Ronald Acuna’s leadoff home runs.
Every new start brings some new potential for a pitcher. If things are going well, this is another opportunity to keep it going. If things aren’t, then today is the day to turn it around. Every start has the potential to be a perfect game, a spot on a mantel, a donation to the Hall of Fame.
Ronald Acuna is here to dump cold buckets of water on all of that potential. He’s here to dash dreams before the dreamer is even fully asleep. He is here to crush souls, and he’s done it 20 times already. And yes, these are only solo homers, and there’s a lot of baseball to be played after, but the Braves are 15-5 when this happens. While it’s mostly folly to try to guess at what’s going on inside players’ heads when you’re watching a game, it’s also hard to believe a pitcher wouldn’t be rattled by watching Acuna deposit one of his first pitches of the day into the seats. At that point, all that potential for good becomes potential for bad. The possible dream turns to nightmare. This could be that one game of the pitcher’s career where he gives up 10 first inning runs. The panic may not settle in, but it’s pulling into the driveway.
Now that my paean to the leadoff homer is finished, let’s get down to brass tacks: the ranking process. Each home run was judged based on five criteria:
- Importance. For most of these homers, in-game importance is going to be about the same. The score is typically 0-0 when Acuna first bats, so this puts the Braves up 1-0. Sometimes, it ties things up or puts a dent into an opponent’s lead. Either way, WPA (Win Probability Added) isn’t going to be particularly helpful here. But the slightly different cWPA (Championship Win Probability Added) could be. This is a measure of a play’s effect on the odds of the team’s chances of winning the World Series. cWPA will reward things like playoff homers, or homers against teams you’re in a tight pennant race against.
- Pitcher quality. Picking on schlubs is fun and all, but it’s more impressive when Acuna flexes his talent against the best the game has to offer. I used the corresponding seasonal DRA (Deserved Run Average) of each crushed soul to rank them for quality.
- Distance. Dingers that go far are the best dingers.
- Exit velocity. This corresponds a bit with the previous category, but I wanted aesthetic appeal to outweigh other factors, so the redundancy is intentional. The pitcher isn’t the only victim here, after all. I want to see wounded baseballs.
- Was it against a Marlin? There are much bigger fish for the Braves to fry, of course, but there’s just something magical about watching Ronald Acuna batter the Marlins. Watching Manager of the Year (sic) Don Mattingly react to one of these leadoff homers is as key to the aesthetic as anything else.
Without further ado, here are the rankings.
No. 20: 9-4-20 vs. Austin Voth, WAS | Curveball
108.0 mph | 411 feet
Acuna doesn’t even know his own power. He slams down his bat in frustration, and even the occasionally overzealous Chip Caray assumes it’s a pop fly for an out. But the wind and Austin Voth’s propensity for allowing bombs (14 in just under 50 innings), could not be denied. There’s some aesthetic appeal to a center field shot, but Washington was terrible, Voth’s the worst pitcher on this list, and the Braves were at this point already likely to make the playoffs.
No. 19: 9-9-19 vs. Aaron Nola, PHI | Four-seamer
102.0 mph | 401 feet
Nola is one of the best pitchers to be victimized by Acuna, but the homer itself is on the shorter side, and it came on a day Atlanta woke up with a 9 1⁄2 game lead in the division. That doesn’t mean there’s not something to enjoy. I provided the Phillies broadcast, which features what sounds like a tired resignation to defeat. The Phillies were only 3 games out of the second Wild Card spot at this point, but you can hear in the announcer’s voice, as he watches Acuna’s 38th homer of the season fly out of the park, that he knows what the weeks ahead have in store for him.
No. 18: 7-31-18 vs. Dan Straily, MIA | Four-seamer
106.2 mph | 378 feet
You’re forgiven if you maybe don’t remember just how tight of a race the Braves were in with the Phillies in 2018. After all, the Phillies haven’t finished a season above .500 since “Moves Like Jagger” was No. 1 on the Hot 100. The last time the Phillies won more than they lost, Disney was only 5 films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we had yet to see them all team up for the Battle of New York. 30 Rock and The Office were still airing new episodes. Muammar Gaddafi was still alive the last time the Phillies topped .500. But on July 31, 2018, Philadelphia woke up with a 1⁄2 game lead over Atlanta in the NL East. That night, in a game threatened by rain, 20 year old Kolby Allard made his first major league start, and Acuna staked him to an early lead. Acuna’s first leadoff home run of his career was, as Chip described it, a rainmaker that landed in the LF bullpen. Bonus points for being against the Marlins, but it’s the shortest homer on this list, and Dan Straily is essentially a human gopherball machine.
No. 17: 6-17-19 vs. Zack Wheeler, NYM | Slider
104.8 mph | 390 feet
This is the only slider on the list, and at 92.7 mph, it’s faster than eight of the fastballs in the set. Zack Wheeler throws hard, folks.
No. 16: 5-20-19 vs. Andrew Suarez, SFG | Four-seamer
111.0 mph | 399 feet
I prefer Acuna’s bombs to come at home, but there’s also something ever so pleasant about watching him annihilate the first pitch of a game. The Giants broadcasters do warn, however, that it’s bad luck to homer on the first pitch of the game. Considering Acuna would later hit a double and another homer en route to a 4-1 Braves victory, it’s scary to think what he could’ve done with some neutral or even good luck.
No. 15: 8-6-19 vs. Jose Berrios, MIN | Four-seamer
106.2 mph | 426 feet
Oh, just another first pitch dinger, except this time, instead of picking on Andrew Suarez, he’s hitting one off a two time All-Star. This one’s pretty majestic, too, clanging off the facade and rolling back to Max Kepler’s starting point.
No. 14: 8-22-18 vs Trevor Williams, PIT | Changeup
102.8 mph | 410 feet
It’s a 1-2 changeup from an eventual 14-game winner who allowed 0.8 HR/9 in 2018. Over his career, Trevor Williams has allowed a .184/.192/.309 line on 1-2 pitches. Absurdity, thy name is Ronald.
No. 13: 9-5-20 vs. Erick Fedde, WAS | Sinker
109.5 mph | 439 feet
It’s easy to miss just how much of a bomb this was, probably because Brock Holt makes an inexplicable leap at the wall. Sometimes a leap is about catching the ball, and sometimes, as in Brock Holt’s case here, it’s apparently about wondering where that meteor streaking across the sky above your head is going to crash to earth. The answer, Brock, is the 16th row.
No. 12: 6-25-19 vs. Adbert Alzolay, CHC | Four-seamer
110.0 mph | 413 feet
Credit to Jeff Francoeur for knowing he has to get done discussing a pitcher’s repertoire by the time the first pitch leaves his hand, because Ronald Acuna can’t wait around all day to start scoring runs. Acuna is lucky to get away without a citation for littering, considering Alzolay’s opening pitch was garbage, and #13 just left it out on Waveland Ave.
No. 11: 8-11-18 vs. Wade Miley, MIL | Cutter
107.3 mph | 388 feet
In a game that meant a lot to both teams - the Brewers were in the 2nd WC position, while the Braves and Phillies were tied for the NL East/top WC spot - the Brewers had taken a 1-0 lead in the top frame thanks to a Ryan Braun RBI single. On a 3-1 count, Miley tried to come inside with a cutter, but he hung it out over the inside part of the plate, and Acuna made him pay with a shot down the line to tie things up. In over 80 innings of work, it would be one of only three home runs allowed by Miley in 2018.
No. 10: 9-05-18 vs. Hector Velazquez, BOS | Sinker
109.8 mph | 415 feet
Boston would go on to win the World Series, and Velazquez was a helpful factor in their regular season success, going 7-2 with a 3.18 ERA and giving up just 0.7 HR/9. This pitch, on the other hand, wasn’t a finer moment. He hung a sinker in the fattest part of the zone, and Acuna made him pay.
No. 9: 7-6-19 vs. Caleb Smith, MIA | Four-seamer
108.1 mph | 431 feet
First pitch, baby. Also, this is the thing that keeps Smith from being a good starter. He’s one of the better strikeout starters in the league (around 10 per 9 innings in his career), but in 2019 gave up a league-leading 33 home runs. This wasn’t a particularly important homer, but it was crushed and Don Mattingly had to watch it.
No. 8: 9-02-18 vs Nick Kingham, PIT | Four-seamer
109.6 mph | 430 feet
Oh, just 430 feet, off the left field deck. No big deal. Also, this one erases an early 1-0 Pittsburgh lead, making it one of the more immediately helpful home runs on this list.
No. 7: 8-13-18 vs. Pablo Lopez, MIA | Four-seamer
105.1 mph | 414 feet
When the Braves walked into SunTrust Park for this August double-header with the Marlins, they were locked into a tie for first place with the Phillies. After the sweep, the Braves were in first. This homer got that started, and it earns its spot here for being the third biggest homer on the list by cWPA (+0.11%).
No. 6: 8-14-18 vs Trevor Richards, MIA | Four-seamer
107.2 mph / 407 feet
Oh, the sheer improbability of it. Surely, a day after a double header in which Acuna led off two games with two home runs, Marlins starter Trevor Richards wouldn’t, yet again, start him off with a fastball in the zone. Or, even if he did, the rookie phenom would miss slightly. You can’t be that locked in every time, right? In Acuna’s case, against the Marlins, he was that locked in. It took a fastball from
the coward Robert Ford Jose Urena the next night to put an end to the streak. The statcast data belies just how magical this homer was, because it’s so much more. It’s Jeff Francoeur’s folksy “Oh my gosh” disbelief. It’s Acuna’s teammates joking around with the dugout security guard - suddenly someone much more on their level, as Acuna had ascended beyond their reach to some higher realm, leaving their mortal plane behind. It’s the fans celebrating like the team had just won a World Series, some of them stunned at what they’re seeing. Blue Nike shirt guy, we are all you. If there’s a sentimental favorite of mine, it’s this one.
No. 5: 9-25-20 vs. Chris Mazza, BOS | Cutter
112.9 mph | 495 feet
In a bit of an upset, the longest home run of the 2020 MLB season finishes 5th on this list. It is indeed crushed, and as is often the case for ultra-long homers, the camera doesn’t even quite know where it is. Even more amazingly, it’s not like he squared up some 97 mph heater; this was an 88 mph cutter. So, despite clearly being #1 on an aesthetic level, why did it only come in 5th? Coming after Atlanta had more or less shored up its playoff status, this also happens to be the most inconsequential homer on the list. And, y’all, it’s Chris Mazza, a now 31 year old crafty righty with less than 50 career major league innings. The poor guy doesn’t know what to do in a 3-1 count, allowing a career line of... ahem... .533/.708/.933 in at-bats that reach that count. This homer is a classic, though, even if it came on beginner mode.
No. 4: 8-13-18 vs Merandy Gonzalez, MIA | Fastball
110.1 mph | 441 feet
Acuna didn’t just destroy a baseball; he might’ve destroyed a career:
Oh, Merandy, you came and you gave without taking. Except for the loss. That, you took. This was Acuna’s second leadoff home run of the day. It was on the first pitch. He crushed it. Against the Marlins. This is art. So much so that I ask you to also watch the Marlins broadcast of this:
You can’t plan timing that sweet. By the time the announcer has gotten out all of Don Mattingly’s quote about Gonzalez being “built for length”, the first pitch of his first MLB start is already detectable on radar. How are there 3 better home runs than this?
No. 3: 5-19-19 vs. Brandon Woodruff, MIL | Changeup
110.0 mph | 437 feet
I do love this homer. First and foremost, it’s off Brandon Woodruff, who, without research, I feel comfortable calling the best pitcher in baseball to have never received a CYA vote. He’s very good, and by DRA, he’s the best pitcher on this list. But it’s not just about Woodruff. This is also just a hammered pitch, and one that tied the game, no less. Direction may not factor into these rankings, but it does matter when it comes to the aesthetic of a homer, and when you hit a ball pretty far and pull it, it results in a majestic shot like this.
No. 2: 8-26-20 vs. Gerrit Cole, NYY | Four-seamer
114.0 mph | 473 feet
Acuna missed a couple of weeks in 2020 with a wrist injury, but he returned on August 26th just in time to face the highest paid pitcher in the sport. On the sixth pitch of his return, he destroyed a full count fastball for a 1-0 lead. This was the hardest hit HR on the list, partially thanks to it being the hardest thrown pitch of the set (97.3 mph). At 473 feet, it’s the second-longest homer, and it’s not like Cole was in the midst of some sort of free agency hangover off-year. He finished 4th in the CYA voting. This also kicked off an excellent second half of Acuna’s season; from this game on, over his final 28 games, he had an impressive 1.055 OPS.
Ok, so what makes the perfect, quintessential, chef’s kiss Acuna leadoff home run? Let’s go back to the criteria.
- It has to matter. ✔
- It has to come against a decent starter. ✔
- It should be a blast. ✔
- Preferably, against a Marlin. ✔
10-6-2020 vs. Sandy Alcantara, MIA | Four-seamer
109.5 mph | 428 feet
Coming off its shutout sweep of the Reds, the Braves had technically won their first playoff series since 2001, but the hastily conceived, duct-taped together format of the 2020 playoffs didn’t exactly allow it to really feel like a playoff series victory. We needed to win an NLDS to truly feel like we’d moved on, and this year’s opponent was Miami, a franchise that hasn’t shut up for 20 years about how it has never lost a postseason series. Similarly, I’ve never lost a season of British Bake-Off, because, like the Marlins most Octobers, I’m not invited to participate, but I digress. This was Atlanta’s to lose, and on the second pitch of the series, Ronald Acuna Jr set the tone. First off, it’s one of his best swings, going opposite field, smacking the facade of the deck. Second, it came against a decent starter - Alcantara’s 4.07 DRA ranks 6th among these pitchers. And, most of all, it was huge. The regular season may be a marathon, but the playoffs are a sprint, and Acuna got Atlanta out of the blocks at breakneck speed. Its +0.86% cWPA is the highest on this list by a mile. It was Acuna’s only extra-base hit of the series, but Atlanta didn’t need any more from him against Miami; the Braves outscored the Marlins 18-5, needing just three games to finally hand Miami an October defeat.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Whether it’s the euphoric silliness of the Richards HR, the tape measure shots off Cole and Mazza, the playoff dinger, or the one that halted the MLB career of the man built for length, it’s really hard to choose poorly. All twenty of these grails are the real thing, so drink them up and enjoy the long life that’s to come, a life I expect will be sweetened with many more first inning 1-0 leads, courtesy of Ronald Acuna, Jr.