In the second Young Stars Week of the 2019 season, MLB is celebrating some of the game’s most dynamic emerging talents each day from Aug. 19-23. Today the spotlight is on 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr.
Let the kids play.
Ronald Acuña Jr. once ran a fever after his mother didn't allow him to compete in a national tournament taking place in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, because he got in trouble in high school. One could draw the conclusion that baseball -- which Acuna calls the “best sport in the world” -- is beneficial to his health.
Growing up, Acuna idolized his countryman Miguel Cabrera. Now, the budding superstar is racking up numbers at a young age that put him in the same company as the future Hall of Famer.
"It means a lot," Acuna said through an interpreter. "It's honestly one of the things that I enjoy the most. It's a motivator to work hard and put in the effort day in and day out."
Following his callup on April 25, 2018, Acuna made an immediate splash en route to winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. In 111 games, he hit 26 home runs and produced a 143 OPS+, helping the Braves reach the postseason for the first time since '13.
Among many record-setting feats, Acuna became the youngest Major Leaguer to go deep in five straight games. In the NL Division Series against the Dodgers, he was the youngest player to hit a postseason grand slam.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is no stranger to reaching the big leagues at a young age. Nearly a decade ago, he debuted for the Braves as a 20-year-old September callup. After getting his feet wet in 2010, Freeman finished second in NL Rookie of the Year Award voting the following season.
"He's a special talent," Freeman said. "I think he's going to be one of those generational talents that you talk about for a long time. He's got that kind of skill set, and he seems to make everything look easy out there. I'm glad he's on our team because it's fun to watch."
A franchise cornerstone with four All-Star selections and a Gold Glove Award, Freeman can put into perspective how impressive Acuna's start has been. That’s why it was an easy decision for the Braves to give Acuna the largest contract ($100 million) for a player with less than a year of MLB service time.
Acuna's encore in 2019 has brought more accolades, as well as the opportunity to participate in his first All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. He’s also closing in on reaching 30/30 status, and would be just the second player in MLB history to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season prior to turning 22 years old.
The other? Perennial MVP Award candidate Mike Trout. Acuna, who turns 22 on Dec. 18, also has a shot at the first 40/40 season since 2006.
In the outfield, the former top prospect has been just as impressive. In a win over the Mets on Aug. 13, Acuna homered and later threw out a runner trying to score with a 99.1-mph laser -- the hardest-thrown assist from a Braves player since Statcast launched in 2015.
But perhaps Acuna's greatest tool -- his exuberance on the baseball field, usually shown alongside close friend Ozzie Albies -- is infectious. He was destined for the limelight.
"I'd tell them to watch every at-bat, every game, because that kid's liable to do something defensively, on the bases or at the plate," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "I think he's like going to a hockey game. You don't want to leave because you might miss the only thing that happens that night. I wouldn't leave my seat because I'd be afraid I'd miss something he's fixing to do."