Ronald Acuna is one of the top prospects in baseball. Outfield Fly Rule’s prospect guru Andy Harris ranked Ronald Acuna 10th before the season, saying, “he possesses perhaps the highest ceiling of any Braves position player (second possibly to Kevin Maitan).” He continued to gush over him in his 33% prospect review. Baseball America ranks him the 62nd best prospect in the game. After his first month of strong play for the A+ Fire Frogs, the Braves aggressively promoted him to AA Mississippi, where he did what few do: better. Much, much better. He not only obliterated AA after his promotion on May 9, but the 19-year-old did it as the youngest player in AA. Last week, he was named to the AA all-star team less than a month after joining the AA team.
The kid’s talent is no passing craze, but is there reason to worry?
Ronald Acuna is still a kid with limited exposure to professional baseball, and there are concerns. So far this year he’s striking out too much and walking too little (7.4% BB, 28.3% K), an issue he hadn’t really struggled with before (2016: 10.6% BB, 16.2% K). Also, much of his explosion this year comes with a Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABiP) way too high to be sustainable (.462 BABIP through May 31). In other words, the kid’s been good – real good – but he’s also been lucky, and that luck helped many of us (me included) overlook some holes as he’s moved seemingly effortlessly up the ladder.
Another issue with Acuna is the limited number of plate appearances despite being promoted aggressively. The Braves signed a 16-year-old Acuna out of Venezuala in 2014 for $100,000 signing bonus. In 2015, he began his professional career in short-season rookie ball with 237 trips to the plate between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues (142 wRC+ combined). Then, after getting off to a good start in his first 128 plate appearances in Rome, slashing .300/.389/.391 (131 wRC+), he suffered an unfortunate injury to his thumb. The injury required surgery and cost him more than three months of development during his first “full season” of ball. When he returned, he was nothing less than sensational, hitting .341/.400/.523 (164 wRC+) down the stretch, but in only 51 plate appearances.
While the numbers are good, that’s only a total of 416 total plate appearances for Acuna (outside of being the “Answer to Everything” in part of a Winter ball season in Australia) before the 2017 season, and only 171 of those plate appearances were above the rookie leagues.
The Struggle is Real
This season, Acuna’s 273 plate appearances already surpasses either of his prior two minor league season totals. Breaking down those plate appearances, it’s clear that his ridiculous start is obscuring a real struggle in June. Acuna is finally hitting a bump in the road — thank goodness.
In A+ from April 6 to May 8 (126 Plate Appearances):
- .287/.336/.478, 133 wRC+, 6.3% BB, 31.7% K (.411 BABiP)
From promotion to AA on May 9 through May 31 (92 PAs):
- .415/.467/.634, 221 wRC+, 9.8% BB, 22.8% K (.525 BABiP)
In AA from June 1 to June 13 (55 PAs):
- .157/.218/.235, 31 wRC+, 5.5% BB, 30.9% K (.212 BABiP)
During this rough stretch he’s had only two extra base hits and he’s only 3 for 6 in stolen base tries.
The Struggle is Needed
When I watched him play a few weeks ago, he was oozing talent and confidence, but also cockiness with a little more ego than is probably good for him (jogging very slowly from first to second on a single to left, staring down an umpire after a strike call, diving for – and missing – a ball he could have caught standing up). He’s a 19-year-old who knows he’s good and acts like it. I have no real issue with that. But he also needs to demonstrate he’s a person able to face adversity with humility and hard work, recognizing he must adjust and learn in order to improve and continue advancing. Now he’s into the grind of a long season where he can focus on improving his game rather than rehabbing an injury. Hopefully, this growth will lead to eye-popping statistics at the higher levels of the minors built on a better foundation than inflated BABiP and poor plate discipline.
I have heard little about his “makeup” as it’s not something that shows up in the metrics we are so fond of at OFR, but we regularly acknowledge the importance of intangibles in conjunction with metrics. I also recognize that being a bit flashy can relate to culture and age as much as makeup, so I’ve reserved judgment until we learn more. So now that his BABiP luck has run out and his struggles with plate discipline are more exposed, I’m eager to see how he responds to this needed test, and I’m hopeful he’ll come out the other side a better player for having gone through it. There’s no doubt he’s got the talent, so this struggle is an opportunity to answer the last real question I have about him: how does he respond to the inevitable downs of an up and down game?