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Acuña has 20/20 vision for 50-50 in 2020

@mlbbowman
February 21, 2020

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Though registering the first 50-50 season in MLB history might seem to be an unrealistic goal for anybody, what Ronald Acuña Jr. achieved before turning 22 years old intensifies excitement about his potential to take his game to previously unexplored heights. “l don’t ever want to

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Though registering the first 50-50 season in MLB history might seem to be an unrealistic goal for anybody, what Ronald Acuña Jr. achieved before turning 22 years old intensifies excitement about his potential to take his game to previously unexplored heights.

“l don’t ever want to be complacent,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “I want to keep striving for more and more as my career progresses.”

Acuña took his game to another level last year when he belted 41 homers and recorded 37 stolen bases. The Braves outfielder joined Mike Trout as the only players to join the 30-30 club before their age-22 season and he finished three steals shy of recording what would have been just the fifth 40-40 season in MLB history.

It will be challenging for Acuña to match this level of success. But having already become the only player to hit at least 65 homers and steal 50 bases at 21 or younger, he has created expectations that he may soon indeed become the game’s next Trout.

Here are a few things to ponder as Acuña attempts to be even better this year.

Elite company
Trout, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. are the only other players to hit at least 60 homers and steal 50 bases at 21 or younger. Rodriguez is the only member of this group who improved his Ballpark and League Adjusted OPS from age 21 to 22, going from 120 to 136. The production of the other two -- Griffey (155 to 149) and Trout (179 to 168) regressed from elite to slightly less elite.

Acuña's 122 OPS+ from last year was actually lower than the 143 OPS+ he produced while playing in just 111 games during his rookie season in 2018. This number ranked just 15th among all qualified MLB outfielders and it steadily dropped, as he produced a .724 OPS over his final 26 games.

Even the superstars are going to occasionally experience a rough stretch. But there’s room for improvement as Hank Aaron noted earlier this week when he said, “As soon as [Acuña] realizes he’s not up there to play and to jive, but that it is a job, I think the sooner [he does that], the better.”

Leadoff success
Acuña did not move into the leadoff role until after the 2018 All-Star Game, then he batted cleanup through May 9 of last year. This year, it appears he’ll be cemented in the leadoff spot, where he has produced a .945 OPS over 858 plate appearances.

Per Baseball Reference’s Play Index, this is the highest OPS produced by a player with a least 850 plate appearances in the leadoff spot. The sample size is small, but the season-plus worth of data creates reason to be more intrigued about what he might do while finally having a full season in this role.

Strikeout rate
Before getting too bothered by the 26.3 percent strikeout rate Acuña produced while going down on strikes 188 times last year, it should be remembered Trout had a 26.1 percent strikeout rate when he won the American League MVP Award as a 22-year-old in 2014. Trout has not had a strikeout rate above 20.4 percent since.

If experience and maturity lead Acuña to improve his plate discipline while maintaining the aggression that makes him such a special talent, he’ll gain more opportunities to bid for a 40-40 season and possibly show it might not have been completely outrageous for him to tell Ozzie Albies that 50-50 is the goal this year.

“When you look at 50-50, it’s not really a goal you feel desperate about wanting to achieve,” Acuña said. “What you really want is to just help the team any way you can.”

Safe to say, the Braves are quite thankful to gain assistance from somebody who can justifiably at least think about the possibility of what has forever been considered an unrealistic goal.

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