In baseball the phrase “hope springs eternal” is often overused, as MLB’s 30 teams enter each season with a wink and a prayer at a majestic playoff run. Some squads are set up better than others with regard to actually competing in a particular season, though, and the Atlanta Braves were not supposed to make a run in 2018.
The Braves, like many organizations around the league, have been in the midst of a full-blown rebuild in recent years, winning 67, 68, and 72 games in successive seasons. Atlanta garnered praise for their tear-down, largely due to an elite-level farm system, but 2018 was seemingly scheduled to be a building year with a mild step forward, with most projections in the mid-to-high 70’s in terms of season win total.
Then, things got weird, with the Braves posting a 12-10 record in the early part of April and looking the part of a potential contender in the NL East. Atlanta was able to compile that modest, yet impressive record, without the services of uber-elite prospect Ronald Acuña, who began the season in triple-A Gwinnett for reasons seemingly centering on service time concerns.
Acuña finally arrived on Apr. 25 and, on cue, the Braves improved in stark fashion. In his first 29 games, it was clear that Acuña was in the majors to stay though, to be fair, the 21-year-old produced solidly but without too many flashes of brilliance. A trip to the disabled list for about a month would presumably slow down the positive mojo to some degree as well.
Instead, the opposite was true. Acuña returned from his injury-related absence on June 29 and became one of the top five hitters in all of baseball. In 82 post-DL games, he blasted 21 home runs with a slash line of .304/.380/.589 and, if that wasn’t impressive enough, Acuña really lifted off after the All-Star break.
It’s an arbitrary endpoint, but it happens to be a beautiful one for the rising star. After the brief hiatus, he posted a 171 wRC+ (an elite figure) in 68 games, putting together a .322/.403/.625 slash line with 19 home runs and 15 doubles in only 303 plate appearances. Undeniably, that was the push that paved the way for Acuña to win the National League Rookie of the Year award but, unlike some who claim that particular piece of hardware, Acuña seems destined for bigger and better things.
Acuña’s youthful enthusiasm is infectious. The Braves, dating back to a narrative centered on Brian McCann’s “enforcement” of unwritten rules during his previous Atlanta tenure, have sometimes been labeled as a stodgy organization, at least on the field. Then, Atlanta’s front office (now removed from duty) was caught up in a major scandal that landed the team’s GM on the lifetime (!) ban list from Major League Baseball.
Acuña’s arrival was timed perfectly in that regard and, in tandem with fellow youngster Ozzie Albies, there were all kinds of telegenic moments that provided hope and entertainment to the fan base.
Things seemingly peaked when Acuña was responsible for Atlanta’s best moment in the playoffs, when he took Walker Buehler deep for a memorable grand slam.
The Braves failed to provide a real threat to the Dodgers in the series, quietly exiting into the night. Still, Atlanta has a (very) bright future after a wildly unexpected 90-win season and, alongside stalwart first baseman Freddie Freeman, it helps to have arguably the best young player in the game under contract for the foreseeable future.
The season came to a quiet end but, in on-brand fashion, Acuña went to Japan as a part of a squad put together for an exhibition and he kept his vibrant style going. Not everyone loves the way he plays the game with vigor but, for a younger generation, Acuña is a great poster child for both playing exceptionally effective baseball and having a ton of fun doing it.
Baseball isn’t always associated, in a broad sense, with fun in 2018 but Ronald Acuña brought quite a bit of joy to both Braves fans and those who appreciate the sport. Given his immense and impressive skill set, it seems safe to project that 2018 is just the beginning.