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Acuna dazzles with 60th career HR, laser throw

Braves OF only 6th player to reach that mark before 22nd birthday
@mlbbowman
August 14, 2019

ATLANTA -- As Ronald Acuña Jr. continues to manufacture one of the most impressive seasons MLB has seen from a player 21 years old or younger, he has created reason to think Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich will not be the only National League players who receive first-place MVP votes.

ATLANTA -- As Ronald Acuña Jr. continues to manufacture one of the most impressive seasons MLB has seen from a player 21 years old or younger, he has created reason to think Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich will not be the only National League players who receive first-place MVP votes.

Acuna strengthened his MVP resume as the Braves cooled a hot division rival with Tuesday night’s 5-3 win over the Mets at SunTrust Park. The 21-year-old All-Star homered for the seventh time in his past seven games and further backed Max Fried's strong start by denying a run with a 99.1-mph throw to the plate.

Box score

“He can do it all on a baseball field,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “He makes it all look easy.”

As the Braves stayed six games ahead of the Nationals and moved nine games in front of the third-place Mets, who lost for just the third time in their past 18 games, they once again benefited from the five-tool talents that have put Acuna in position to record the fifth 30-homer, 30-stolen base season in franchise history and possibly the fifth 40-40 season in MLB history.

Acuna got the Braves rolling when he singled and scored on Josh Donaldson's first-inning single. He then further damaged Zack Wheeler with a one-out solo shot in the fourth. His 34 homers are the second most hit by a Braves player 21 or younger, trailing only Eddie Mathews, who hit 47 in 1953.

“He's a good young player and when you miss your spots, he's going to make you pay more than likely," Wheeler said.

This recent power surge is similar to the one Acuna manufactured at this same time last year, when he homered eight times within eight games from Aug. 8-14. He now has 60 career homers. The only other players to reach this total before their 22nd birthday were Mel Ott (86), Tony Conigliaro (84), Mathews (72), Frank Robinson (60) and Ken Griffey Jr. (60).

Fried limited the Mets to one run during a six-inning effort that ended with Acuna denying Todd Frazier’s bid to score on Juan Lagares’ two-out single to left. The strong-armed outfielder’s 99.1-mph laser was the fifth-highest velocity recorded on an outfield assist this year. It was also the hardest-thrown assist recorded by a Braves outfielder since Statcast began tracking this data in 2015.

“I just saw him let go of the ball and I saw Frazier was on his way home,” Fried said. “With Ronald, anything can happen. You saw the ball take an extra gear halfway there.”

MVP talk

As Acuna has homered 13 times, recorded 15 of his 28 stolen bases and consistently shown the value of his glove over 30 games since the All-Star break, he has halted talk of the NL MVP battle being a two-man race. He entered Tuesday with an NL-best 1.7 fWAR (FanGraphs’ WAR model) in the second half. Yelich ranked fifth with a 1.4 mark and Bellinger was 18th at 0.9.

Looking at the season marks, Yelich ranked first with 6.4 fWAR, Bellinger second with 6.3 and Acuna fourth with 4.8. Yelich’s candidacy will be influenced by his back, which kept him out of the Brewers’ lineup for six games before he returned Tuesday night.

“You can never count out Ronnie,” Fried said. “I’m never going to count him out, especially with how special he is and what he’s able to do.”

40-40

Acuna is six homers and 12 stolen bases shy in his bid to join Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (1998) and Alfonso Soriano (2006) as the only players to record a 40-40 season. Canseco is the only player to win an MVP Award at the end of such a season.

Of course, before joining this club, Acuna will need to tally the two stolen bases necessary to join Hank Aaron (1963), Dale Murphy (1983) and Ron Gant (1990, ‘91) as the only Braves to record a 30-30 season. The only player to join this club before his 22nd birthday in MLB history was Mike Trout in 2012.

“He’s just a really, really good player,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “The biggest thing is he’s getting better. He’s improving all aspects of his game since we started in March. His outfield play, his baserunning, everything … he’s getting better as a player and that’s a really good thing for a young talented guy.”

On pace

Using season statistics compiled through the Braves’ 121 games, Acuna is on pace to finish with 45 home runs and 37 stolen bases. If accounting for the rates (4.31 at-bats per game, 13.3 AB/HR and 0.31 stolen bases per game) produced since he moved back to the leadoff spot on May 10, he’s on pace to finish with 47 homers and 40 stolen bases.

A smaller sample size provides a less accurate projection. But it’s still fun to point out that if Acuna were to maintain his post-All-Star break rates (4.4 AB/G, 10.2 AB/HR and 0.5 SB/G), he’d finish with 51 homers and 48 stolen bases. Nobody has ever recorded more than 24 stolen bases during a 50-homer season.

“When I watch him play, I’m just amazed at what he can do at such a young age,” McCann said. “He’s only going to get better, better and better.”

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.