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Are we watching the next Griffey Jr.?

@_dadler
April 26, 2020

There are so many reasons why we want baseball back, but here's one big one: we can't wait to see Ronald Acuña Jr. back on the field. Already one of MLB's best players, only 22 years old, the rare must-see star who can be a face of baseball for years

There are so many reasons why we want baseball back, but here's one big one: we can't wait to see Ronald Acuña Jr. back on the field.

Already one of MLB's best players, only 22 years old, the rare must-see star who can be a face of baseball for years and years -- we can't wait to see what heights Acuña's career will reach once baseball returns. Actually ... let's try to figure it out.

Let's find some Ronald Acuña Jr. models from baseball history -- similar archetype players whose careers he could follow. In other words, we're looking for dynamic power-speed outfielders who debuted young and were instant game-changers, with MVP-level ceilings.

Here are three potential career paths for Acuña: a ceiling, a floor and a middle road. And we're not going to shortchange a kid who just barely missed becoming the fifth 40-40 club member in MLB history -- he hit 41 home runs and stole 37 bases last year -- and is hungry to be the first player to go 50-50.

(Note: this exercise assumes Acuña's health allows him to continue his career trajectory in a way players like Grady Sizemore couldn't, when injuries keeping them from the prolonged peaks they flashed as young power-speed stars.)

The ceiling: Ken Griffey Jr. (83.8 Wins Above Replacement)

There are only four outfielders in Major League history with 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases by age 21: Griffey, Mike Trout, Andruw Jones and Acuña. (Alex Rodriguez also did it, as a shortstop.) Let's look at The Kid.

We know how Griffey's career ended up. The 630 home runs, the iconic swing. Here's how it started compared to Acuña's.

Griffey through age 21: .299/.367/.479, 60 HR, 50 SB, .847 OPS, 135 OPS+, 15.6 WAR
Acuña through age 21: .285/.365/.532, 67 HR, 53 SB, .897 OPS, 130 OPS+, 9.9 WAR

Griffey debuted even younger than Acuña, at 19 years old. So his home run, stolen base and WAR totals came in three seasons to Acuña's two. But Junior had the same flavor of immediate impact on the game.

Griffey started his career as a third-place Rookie of the Year finisher. By the next season, he was an All-Star and in the MVP conversation. He didn't leave that conversation for a decade. Griffey's age-22 season started an eight-year run through the 1990s in which he amassed 338 home runs and 117 stolen bases, averaging 42-15 and peaking with his 56-15 MVP season in 1997 and his 56-20 season in '98. He had a .986 OPS and 154 OPS+ from age 22-29.

Acuña started his career as the Rookie of the Year. By the next season, he was an All-Star and in the MVP conversation. He doesn't look like he'll leave that conversation anytime soon. The numbers through the rest of his 20s, if he continues at his peak trajectory, will be astronomical.

Trout is Acuña's gold standard to aspire to as far as the players he shares the field with. You can easily see how Trout might pass the "best player in baseball" torch to Acuña one day. Acuña isn't at Trout's level of production, but he has Trout-like potential.

Trout through age 21: .314/.404/.544, 62 HR, 86 SB, 166 OPS+, 19.9 WAR

Trout and Acuña aren't the same player. But how can you look at Trout's 30-homer, 49-steal rookie season at 20 and not think of Acuña's 41-homer, 37-steal sophomore campaign at 21?

Trout stands alone because he's maintained his MVP level every single season of his career. He isn't just a ceiling model for Acuña; he's the ceiling model for today's game.

There's one other player who could be a ceiling of ceilings for Acuña. It's Frank Robinson, who's actually the most comparable hitter to Acuña at age 21, by Baseball Reference's handy similarity scores.

Robinson through age 21: .307/.378/.543, 67 HR, 18 SB, 139 OPS+, 13.4 WAR

Robinson and Acuña parallel each other in how they arrived on the big league stage -- both debuted and were Rookies of the Year at 20, both followed that up with superstar performances as 21-year-old sophomores.

Robinson, of course, went on to become a Hall of Famer and all-time great. He was a power-speed star all through his 20s, averaging 32 home runs and 18 stolen bases from age 22-29, and went on to total 586 career homers and 204 steals.

The reason we're going with Griffey as the No. 1 choice: he and Acuña are alike in the numbers and beyond, as fun-to-watch, let-the-kids-play, faces of the game.

The floor: Justin Upton (34.4 WAR)

What if Acuña gets off track? If maintaining a Hall of Fame trajectory was easy, there'd be way too many Hall of Famers. What's Acuña's floor?

The good thing is, Acuña's already so good that only other really good players reached a similar level of early-career/young-age all-around star power.

So when you look for a "floor" for Acuña, you're not looking at busts, you're still looking at stars. There's a reason Acuña has one of only 13 40-30 seasons in MLB history, and the other ones were by Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Alfonso Soriano, Jeff Bagwell, A-Rod, Larry Walker, Barry Bonds, Ellis Burks, Jose Canseco and Hank Aaron.

Upton has never gone 40-30, so in a way Acuña's already exceeded his peak. But looking at Upton's career and numbers, he's a good player to consider as a baseline.

Upton was a young debuter, playing his first MLB game just before his 20th birthday. He didn't break out as quickly as Acuña, but when he did, he was still just 21, and he was a top-five MVP finisher two years later at 23, with the same type of season Acuña had en route to his top-five finish in 2019.

Acuña at 20 (2018): .293/.366/.552, 26 HR, 16 SB, .917 OPS, 143 OPS+, 4.2 WAR
Upton at 21 (2009): .300/.366/.532, 26 HR, 20 SB, .899 OPS, 129 OPS+, 4.0 WAR

Acuña at 21 (2019): .280/.365/.518, 41 HR, 37 SB, .883 OPS, 122 OPS+, 5.7 WAR
Upton at 23 (2011): .289/.369/.529, 31 HR, 21 SB, .898 OPS, 141 OPS+, 5.5 WAR

Upton has played 13 MLB seasons now, with 298 homers, 147 steals and a 120 OPS+. He's a four-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger. From age 22-29, he averaged 27 homers and 14 steals. He's not a bad floor.

Maybe some Atlanta fans secretly fear Acuña becoming the next Jason Heyward, a No. 1 prospect who was never the all-around superstar he could've been for the Braves. But it seems a lot more likely he becomes, at the least, the next Andrew McCutchen, an MVP-caliber all-around force at his peak who gets a little less dynamic but stays highly productive later on.

The average: Bobby Bonds (57.9 WAR)

Now let's find the average -- the Acuña arc that sits in the middle of "Acuña Upton" and "Acuña Griffey."

That central tier fits a range of great power-speed outfielders, the likes of Burks, the Braves' own Jones and Bonds, up to Dave Winfield and Andre Dawson. All those players match Acuña's style and potential to varying degrees. It seems crazy to list Hall of Fame careers as "center"-level projections for Acuña, but ... Acuña is on a crazy path.

Bonds Senior was one of the first great power-speed threats of the divisional era. He debuted at 22, a little older than Acuña, but he's one of the few players who really equaled Acuña's elite home run/stolen base territory. Bonds' first full season, as a 23-year-old in 1969, he had 32 homers and 45 steals, putting up very similar numbers to the ones Acuña posted 50 years later.

Acuña at 21 (2019): 122 OPS+, 5.7 WAR
156 G, 715 PA, 41 HR, 37 SB, 127 R, 101 RBI, 76 BB, 188 K

Bonds at 23 (1969): 131 OPS+, 6.3 WAR
158 G, 720 PA, 32 HR, 45 SB, 120 R, 90 RBI, 81 BB, 187 K

For Bonds, that was the start of an 11-year run from age 23-33 in which he totaled 312 homers and 425 steals, a 29-39 average, while reaching the 30-30 club five times. Those seasons accounted for the bulk of Bonds' career statistics -- 332 home runs, 461 stolen bases -- but they're great career totals to have.

Bobby Bonds is one of just eight players in the career 300-300 club. A-Rod, Dawson, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Carlos Beltrán, Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders are the others. Acuña could be headed that way.

If you're curious about Burks, Jones, Winfield and Dawson, here's how they performed early in their careers, and how they ended up.

Burks, age 22-23: 38 HR, 52 SB, 115 OPS+, 8.2 WAR
Burks, career: 352 HR, 181 SB, 126 OPS+, 49.8 WAR

Jones, age 20-21: 49 HR, 47 SB, 106 OPS+, 10.7 WAR
Jones, career: 434 HR, 152 SB, 111 OPS+, 62.7 WAR

Winfield, age 22-23: 35 HR, 32 SB, 116 OPS+, 4.9 WAR
Winfield, career: 465 HR, 223 SB, 130 OPS+, 64.2 WAR

Dawson, age 22-23: 44 HR, 49 SB, 111 OPS+, 8.7 WAR
Dawson, career: 438 HR, 314 SB, 119 OPS+, 64.8 WAR

We saw how great the "Acuña, age 20-21" was. It stacks up to any of them. Why shouldn't the career follow?

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.