Acuña making it look easy in comeback season

Superstar outfielder slashing .368/.457/.737 during Braves' 11-game win streak

June 13th, 2022

Like everything else he does on a baseball field, Ronald Acuña Jr. is making his return from a torn ACL in his right knee look effortless, but that doesn’t make his comeback any less incredible.

It hasn’t even been a year since Acuña suffered his injury on July 10, 2021, causing him to miss the rest of the 2021 season and the Braves’ run to a World Series title, but the 24-year-old is already back to performing at a superstar level, and he’s helped Atlanta get back on track after a slow start.

Acuña has recorded a .368/.457/.737 slash with four homers during Atlanta's current 11-game winning streak. He had a relatively quiet game Sunday, going 0-for-2 with two walks, but the full Acuña experience was on display the day before as he homered to lead off the bottom of the first inning and later scored from first base on Dansby Swanson’s bloop single to right field.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody like that in my time, and I’ve seen a bunch of Hall of Famers and some that aren’t Hall of Famers that are knocking on the door, where you just go ‘Wow,’” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the team's 10th straight win. “This kid is almost on another level with what he can do.”

Snitker wasn’t the only one to express admiration for the dynamic outfielder on Saturday. NBA superstar LeBron James also took notice after Acuña mimicked James’ signature chalk toss ritual following his homer. “Ayyeeee!! Man I love this kid,” James tweeted in response to Acuña's imitation.

Acuña's stat line is a good indicator of the impact he’s had so far, as he produced a .311 average, six homers, 11 steals and a .943 OPS over his first 32 games. He had 1.5 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement entering Sunday.

It’s not just about the numbers, though. Amazingly, all of the elements that made Acuña special before his injury have returned, as if he was never gone. (All stats below are through Saturday.)

The power

Few players around baseball can hit the ball as hard as Acuña, and it didn’t take long for the outfielder to show off this rare trait after he made his return on April 28. In his fifth game back, Acuña laced a 116.6 mph double off Mets right-hander Carlos Carrasco -- the fourth-hardest batted ball of his career and one of the hardest-hit balls in MLB this season.

While a sample size of one event usually doesn’t tell us much about a player, max exit velocity can be an important tool to evaluate power. To put it simply, hitters don’t fluke their way into 116.6 mph exit velocities. It takes real skill to hit a ball that hard.

Acuña also stacks up well over a larger sample size. Since his debut in 2018, he has consistently ranked among MLB’s best in hard-hit rate, the percentage of batted balls with a 95+ mph exit velocity; and barrel rate, batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in extra-base hits and homers.

Here are his percentile ranks in each stat during his first four seasons.

Hard-hit rate:

  • 2018: 91st
  • 2019: 89th
  • 2020: 99th
  • 2021: 97th

Barrel rate:

  • 2018: 93rd
  • 2019: 95th
  • 2020: 95th
  • 2021: 99th

This season, his 52.4% hard-hit rate ranks in the 95th percentile, while his 18.3% barrel rate sits in the 98th percentile. His expected slugging percentage, based on quality of contact and strikeouts, is .620, the highest of his career and the seventh best in the Majors this season.

The plate discipline

Another reason Acuña is such a dangerous hitter is that he rarely expands the zone. Since 2018, MLB hitters on average have chased 28% of pitches they’ve seen outside of the strike zone, but Acuña's career chase rate is 22.8%. This season? It’s 22.7%, which ranks in the 83rd percentile.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Acuña is a passive hitter. He’s aggressive in certain situations, as indicated by his swing rates on the first pitch (34.3%) and on in-zone pitches (69.3%), both of which are well above average. And when he does decide to cut loose, good things usually happen.

Statcast’s swing/take number is a counting stat that assigns a run value to every pitch based on its outcome (ball, strike, home run, etc.). Despite missing almost all of April, Acuña's swing/take number this season is +11, tied for the 27th best in MLB. Among hitters at +10 or better, only Josh Naylor and Tim Anderson have seen fewer pitches than Acuña.

The contact skills

We know how much damage Acuña can do when he connects, but contact, in terms of how often he gets the bat on the ball, has always been his weakest skill, and that hasn’t changed in 2022. His whiff rate (misses / swings) and strikeout rate both rank in the 19th percentile.

That said, both numbers have been trending downward lately, so that they are at least getting closer to his career marks (27.8% whiff rate, 25.9% K-rate).

Through May 31, Acuna whiffed on 31.5% of his swings and struck out in 32.3% of his plate appearances. Since June 1, his whiff rate is 27.3% and his K-rate is 14.3%.

The leadoff success

Acuña has been one of MLB’s biggest top-of-the-order threats since the Braves made him their regular leadoff hitter in July of his rookie year. In fact, only George Springer has more leadoff homers (27) than Acuña (25) since July 20, 2018, Acuña's first career game batting out of the No. 1 spot in the order.

Acuña has continued to own the first inning this year, putting up a .448 average and 1.225 OPS through 30 first-inning plate appearances while leading off in each of his starts.

The speed

You’d expect someone who’s coming back from a serious knee injury to take it easy on the bases, at least early on, but not Acuña. He stole two bases in his first game back and swiped 11 bags in 14 attempts over his first 31 games.

Acuña's average sprint speed isn’t all the way back yet -- he’s at 28.2 ft/sec after averaging 29.5 ft/sec across 2018-21 -- but that might just be because he’s chosen to avoid running at full speed unless he really needs to.

The top-end speed is still there, as evidenced by his six bolts, competitive runs with a sprint speed of 30 ft/sec or faster. One of his bolts came on his dash around the bases Saturday to score from first on Swanson’s single, as he reached 30.2 ft/sec on the play.

Acuña's average sprint speed will likely continue to tick up as he gets further away from the injury, which, again, was less than a year ago.

And remember, he's only 24, so there's room for the rest of his game to improve as well. Considering how quickly he's returned to form after such a major injury, perhaps we should count on it.