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2021 Braves Player Review: Ronald Acuña Jr.

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Ronald Acuña Jr. was on track for his first MVP award before disaster struck

Atlanta Braves World Series Parade Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images

If you were going through the Braves roster before the 2021 season and had to circle one player that had to perform well for the Braves to succeed, it is likely you would have circled Ronald Acuña Jr., even with the rest of the talent the Braves had on their roster. Acuña has cemented himself as one of the most exciting and potent players in the game, but as we found out in 2021, even the most talented players have to overcome adversity.

How Acquired

In what can best be described as the heist of the century, the Braves signed Ronald Acuña Jr. as an international free agent back in 2014 for $100,000. Yes... just $100,000. There were other clubs that were in on him back then, including the Nationals, but the Braves got word from his trainers that he was a worthy gamble, the Braves upped their offer, and the rest is history.

After getting the attention of some scouts in rookie ball, Acuña began his coming out party in Rome in 2016, where he was causing all sorts of havoc until a thumb injury cost him a big chunk of the season. He came back and was a big part of Rome’s run to the league championship that season.

From there, you likely know the rest of the story: Acuña started the next season in High-A, quickly got promoted to Double-A where he went wild, got promoted to Triple-A where he continued to go wild, and then made his major league debut in 2018 after the ol’ service time manipulation thing kept him in the minors for the first few weeks of the season.

Expectations and Projections

It’s hard to realistically project a guy like Ronald Acuña Jr. because the sky is the limit of his talent. When it’s less obvious what constitutes “too high,” it’s hard to gauge what seems “about right.” In his second season in the league, he finished just three stolen bases shy of a 40/40 season, which is sheer lunacy. By the way, that 41 HR/37 SB season was the season to date where he recorded his lowest career wRC+, 125. Again... insane. A lot of people, including teammate Freddie Freeman (please re-sign him), had him as a favorite to win the MVP in 2021, and given what he has shown up until now, it is hard to blame them.

If we are looking strictly at actual projections, ZiPS from 2021 gives us a good sense of what kind of talent we’re blessed to watch. Generally speaking, projections tend to be reserved because huge seasons are, by their nature, outliers. That being said, ZiPS still had Acuña putting up a 5.8 fWAR season with 43 home runs, 115 RBI, 33 stolen bases, and a .282/.390/.568 slash line. If you can pencil a guy in for those sorts of numbers and it not be an outlandish 95th percentile-and-higher outcome... well, that guy is special. Basically, the projection systems all had Acuña as an elite, 5-6 win guy as a central estimate, which basically means he was expected to be maybe not the best player in baseball, but certainly in the running for that crown.

2021 Season Results

Ronald Acuña Jr. 2021 Season Stats: .283/.394/.596, 24 homers, 52 RBI, 72 runs, 17 SB, 157 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR

We’ll get into Acuña’s unfortunate injury a bit later, but ZiPS nearly nailed it when it came to his 2021 offensive production in terms of triple-slash, which is remarkable in and of itself. The 4.2 fWAR Acuña posted in just 82 games still had him finish the season as a top-35 player or so in all of baseball, which, again, he did in half a season. His wRC+ of 157 would’ve ranked fourth behind Bryce Harper, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Juan Soto among qualifiers; it was tied for seventh among everyone with 200 or more PAs. He finished third in MLB in xwOBA, just .003 behind Soto and Harper, among players with 200+ PAs.

At the time of his injury, assuming the Braves still pulled it together and made a postseason run (or perhaps irrelevant to that, given how the NL MVP shook out), Acuña was an MVP frontrunner. He was the reason the Braves weren’t in a far more dire situation than they were.. .without him, they probably wouldn’t have been able to hang around .500. He was awesome and had a reasonable shot at a 40/40 season if he had picked up the stolen base production just a little bit.

What went right? What went wrong?

We’ll talk about what went right first, because that is a lot more fun to talk about. For that, just imagine me gesturing wildly at the previous section. Seriously, look at those stats. He was really, really good when he was on the field. Moreover, Acuña was showing signs that he was still improving somehow. His strikeout rate (23.6 percent) and grounder rate (31.3 percent) were the lowest of his career. His ISO of .313 was elite by any measure. He actually underperformed his xwOBA by .015. He was voted to another All-Star Game as a starter and it looked like we could be in store for a special season.

Honestly, just looking at his season, the numbers are mind-boggling. The lowest barrel rate he’s ever posted was about double league-average. In 2020, it was nearly 2.5 times league average. In 2021? Over three times the league-average rate, with one-in-five balls he hit into play counting as a barrel. He set a new high in both average and max exit velocity. He had a nigh-unthinkable .464 xwOBA against sliders. He was second in MLB in run value on pitches in the shadow zone, which is the zone where pitchers make their living (only 23 of 641 batters finished with a positive run value in that zone in 2021). He continued to infrequently chase, and when chasing, made contact at an average rate — his elevated whiff rate was due to misses in the zone, a strategy we’ve all likely gotten used to appreciating by now.

One thing to note was a crazy-high pull rate (over 47 percent of the time), which may have been a reflection of his desire to try to win games single-handedly when the team was struggling. It didn’t matter at all in 2021 with how infrequently he hit crappy grounders, but if there’s a change to his contact profile with that same pull rate, it may dampen some of his batting down the line.

Now, the bad news. Acuña had to battle a few minor injuries during the 2021 season, including a leg injury on a play at first base where, for a brief moment, it looked like his season might have ended right there as he limped all the way into the outfield before sitting down. Fortunately, he ended up missing just a few games. There were also issues with his back and finger that caused him to miss a game here and there. However, that was not the case on a play in July in the outfield, where Acuña landed awkwardly while trying to make a jumping catch. It was abundantly clear that it was a serious injury, as he was carted off the field and a worst-case scenario was confirmed when it was announced that Acuña had torn his ACL and would not play the rest of the season.

Road to the Title

Unfortunately, because of his torn ACL, Acuña would not play another game the rest of the season and did not make it back for the playoffs. However, he was still around the team and made his presence quite known with his hilarious celebrations and cheering of his teammates. If they had let him, its certain he would have grabbed his batting helmet and at least pinch-hit a bit, but that was probably a bad idea. Probably.

Nonetheless, Acuña finished second on the team in regular-season WPA (behind Freeman). Perhaps more impressively, he did it without any kind of crazy come-from-behind walkoff homer thing, so the massive WPA was the result of big hit after big hit for the three-plus months he was healthy. His biggest WPA/cWPA game, though, was indeed a walkoff homer — a sanity-saving shot in a crazy game where the Braves blew a two-run lead, tied it on a late William Contreras single, and then had Will Smith nearly throw the game away after Cameron Maybin reached base on a strikeout, stole second, and moved to third on a wild pitch with one out. But, Smith bore down, and Acuña, who had been 0-for-2 with a couple of walks, saved the day:

Se acabó, indeed, Ronald.

Outlook for 2022

Going to go ahead and get this out of the way now: it is highly unlikely that Ronald Acuña Jr. is going to be ready for Opening Day 2022. There are a lot of glowing reports and video out there from his rehab and that is great, but ACL injuries still take time and the Braves are not going to risk him hurting himself again for what would be a short-term lineup gain, not when they’ve got a whole season to think about. It sounds like Acuña wants to return by May 2022 and if all goes to plan, that is possible, with summer 2022 maybe being the safest (and likeliest? who knows) outcome. When he returns, expect him to maybe be a little rusty at the plate, but still awesome overall. He may not try to steal as many bases, though, given the nature of his injury.

It is worth noting here, too, that the 2022 season is also the season where Ronnie is going to start making real (but still criminally unpaid) money. In 2022, he will make $15 million, followed by $17 million per season for at least the next four seasons with two club option seasons at that amount after that.

Steamer currently projects Acuña for 5.6 WAR in 557 PAs, which is basically a mid-May return playing time-wise, assuming he doesn’t miss any other time on the shelf. There are only six position players with a better projection, and each of those has well over 600 PAs to play with. Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Acuña are the only position players currently projected by Steamer to clear 6 WAR/600. It’s a good time to be a Braves fan.