Do Not Sleep on Ronald Acuña Jr.

Between the fireworks shows put on by 21-year-olds Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., and the big numbers put up by teammates Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuña Jr. didn’t command as much attention as his talents merited last year. A two-week stay on the injured list didn’t help, particularly when it came to posting eye-opening counting stats. Even so, and even in abbreviated form, Acuña turned in his third straight stellar campaign. As he heads into his age-23 season, his place among the game’s elite shouldn’t be ignored.

Acuña entered the 2020 season on a high note, following up his 2018 NL Rookie of the Year campaign with his first as an All-Star. Playing in 156 games in 2019, he hit .280/.365/.518 (126 wRC+), bashed 41 homers and stole a league-high 37 bases in 46 attempts; three more steals, and he would have joined Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano as the only members of the 40–40 club. Back in the Baseball Abstract days, Bill James introduced a simple stat called Power-Speed number, which takes the harmonic mean of a player’s home run and stolen base totals. Acuña’s 2019 season is tied for 16th overall, and sixth among players 25 or under:

Top Power-Speed Numbers by Players 25 and Under
Player Tm Year Age HR SB PSN
Alex Rodriguez SEA 1998 22 42 46 43.91
Eric Davis CIN 1987 25 37 50 42.53
Jose Canseco OAK 1988 23 42 40 40.98
Barry Bonds PIT 1990 25 33 52 40.38
Eric Davis CIN 1986 24 27 80 40.37
Ronald Acuña Jr. ATL 2019 21 41 37 38.90
Willie Mays NYG 1956 25 36 40 37.89
Darryl Strawberry NYM 1987 25 39 36 37.44
Bobby Bonds SFG 1969 23 32 45 37.40
Mike Trout LAA 2012 20 30 49 37.22
Hanley Ramirez FLA 2007 23 29 51 36.98
José Ramírez CLE 2018 25 39 34 36.33
Cesar Cedeno HOU 1974 23 26 57 35.71
Grady Sizemore CLE 2008 25 33 38 35.32
Ryne Sandberg CHC 1985 25 26 54 35.10
Shawn Green TOR 1998 25 35 35 35.00
Cesar Cedeno HOU 1973 22 25 56 34.57
Sammy Sosa CHC 1993 24 33 36 34.43
Hanley Ramirez FLA 2008 24 33 35 33.97
Bobby Bonds SFG 1970 24 26 48 33.73
Preston Wilson FLA 2000 25 31 36 33.31
Mike Schmidt PHI 1975 25 38 29 32.90
Ron Gant ATL 1990 25 32 33 32.49
David Wright NYM 2007 24 30 34 31.88
Carlos Beltran KCR 2002 25 29 35 31.72
Trevor Story COL 2018 25 37 27 31.22
Mookie Betts BOS 2018 25 32 30 30.97
Francisco Lindor CLE 2018 24 38 25 30.16
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Power/Speed Number, a stat introduced by Bill James in 1980, is the harmonic mean of home run and stolen base totals. PSN = 2 x (HR x SB)/(SB + HR).

Those are some of the most electrifying seasons ever put together by young players. Landing between the more extreme of Davis’ two amazing seasons and a Mays one — well, that is some damn company. It’s also quite frankly far more interesting than Acuña’s 5.6 WAR ranking eighth in the NL that season and ninth among all seasons by position players 21 and under in the post-1960 expansion era.

Acuña’s 2020 season wasn’t quite as electrifying. In fact, he started quite slowly, going just 5-for-33 with 17 strikeouts and no homers through his first eight games before heating up over his next 11 games with four homers. Alas, he was scratched from the Braves’ lineup on August 11 due to soreness in his left wrist and wound up missing 10 games for what was diagnosed merely as inflammation, a problem he believed stemmed from an awkward dive into a base. He homered in his first game back on August 26, off the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, but after five games was sidelined again for a few days due to right hamstring tightness. Upon returning to the lineup, he homered three times in a doubleheader and once the next day, and he didn’t miss another game.

Acuña finished the season with a .250/.406/.582 line. His batting average was atypically low, 35 points worse than what he’d done in 2018–19, but he hit the ball harder than ever. His 92.4 mph average exit velocity, 16% barrel rate, .425 xwOBA, and 57% hard-hit rate all placed in the 91st percentile to the 98th percentile.

Acuña did that while swinging at a career-low 40.7% of pitches (down from the 45–46% range in his first two seasons), with his swing rate in the strike zone dropping about seven points to 60.3% and his swing rate out of the zone falling about two points to 21.1%. Protecting his wrist may have been a factor, given that Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told the media it was still sore throughout the postseason (recall him aggravating the wrist after taking a tumble while legging out an infield hit in NLCS Game 4, after which he went 1-for-12 with two walks). Acuña’s rolling swing rate doesn’t line up perfectly with the reported injury, but he definitely swung less later in the season:

I included 2019 for comparison; Acuña’s only time in 2020 above his two-year average (the dotted line) was the period between his two absences. Anyway, via his more disciplined approach, his walk rate spiked to 18.8%, which ranked third in the NL and was about eight points higher than 2019. His .406 on-base percentage and .581 slugging percentage both represented career bests and ranked seventh and eighth in the league, respectively. His 2.4 WAR was tied for eighth and his 14 homers was tied for 12th — that despite missing just under a quarter of the season.

With Freeman hitting .341/.462/.640 with a league-high 3.3 WAR en route to the NL MVP award and a second-place finish behind Soto in all three slash stats, and Ozuna leading the league in homers (18), RBI (56), and total bases (145), Acuña was merely the third-most productive Braves hitter. It felt as though he didn’t capture the public imagination as a prodigy the way that the 21-year-old Soto and Tatis did. A 22-year-old veteran doing those things? Old news.

Given the eight-year, $100 million extension that he signed in April 2019, Acuña certainly isn’t lined up to be paid like Tatis, who signed a 14-year, $340 million extension last month, or Soto, whom the Nationals reportedly plan to offer a long-term extension, if they haven’t already. The latter, who has 25 days less service time than Acuña (two years and 134 days to two and 159), is making $8.5 million going year-to-year. Acuña, meanwhile, will be paid a fraction of what he’s projected to be worth during his mid- and late 20s thanks to a deal that former colleague Craig Edwards called “hard to fully comprehend,” as he signed away two to four seasons of free agency (the last two are club options) for which he’ll earn just $17 million per year.

That said, I’m not here to rehash that contract, as exasperating as it is. I’m here because I’ve been dreaming on Acuña since drawing the right field assignment in our annual Positional Power Rankings and trying to place him in the context of the aforementioned whippersnappers, whose long-term projections I’ve examined at length. Before getting to the whole thing, I’ll note that ZiPS projects him to be worth 5.9 WAR in 2021, the fourth-highest total in the majors behind Trout (6.7), Alex Bregman (6.0), and Betts (6.0), with Soto just below him at 5.7. Steamer doesn’t hold him in quite as high regard, with his 5.3 WAR there ranking ninth, but in our Depth Charts projections, which averages the two systems with manual adjustments for playing time, he’s in a virtual tie for fifth with José Ramírez at 5.7 WAR.

Dan Szymborski recently published ZiPS projections for 2022 and ’23 to go with this year’s, and that’s where the fun really starts:

Three-Year ZiPS Projection Leaders
Player 2021 Age 2021 WAR 2022 WAR 2023 WAR Total
Juan Soto 22 5.7 6.6 7.0 19.3
Mike Trout 29 6.7 6.5 5.9 19.1
Ronald Acuña Jr. 23 5.9 6.5 6.2 18.6
Alex Bregman 27 6.0 5.7 5.5 17.2
Mookie Betts 28 6.0 5.7 5.5 17.2
Cody Bellinger 25 5.4 5.4 5.2 16.0
José Ramírez 28 5.7 5.2 5.0 15.9
Francisco Lindor 27 5.1 4.9 4.6 14.6
Matt Chapman 28 5.0 4.7 4.8 14.5
Fernando Tatis Jr. 22 5.1 4.9 4.6 14.0
Trea Turner 28 4.7 4.4 4.3 13.4
Ozzie Albies 24 4.1 4.5 4.7 13.3
Corey Seager 27 4.6 4.4 4.3 13.3
Gleyber Torres 24 4.4 4.3 4.6 13.3
Bo Bichette 23 4.0 4.5 4.7 13.2

Oh hello, guy who’s within a win of Soto and Trout over a three-year period.

This actually shouldn’t be too big of a surprise if you’ve been following Dan’s work, because ZiPS loves Acuña. A year ago this month, just before the world fell apart, Dan examined the likely candidates to overtake Trout as the game’s best player as measured by projected WAR. He found Lindor to have the best chance of passing Trout in his projections in both 2021 and ’22, albeit with just a 9.7% chance in the former year and 11.7% chance in the latter. That didn’t come to pass, as Lindor failed to light the world on fire in the pandemic-shortened season. Come 2024, however, the projections showed Acuña with an 18.8% chance of having the game’s highest projected WAR, ahead of Trout’s 16.1%, with Soto third at 10.2%. The same three players are in the same order for ’25, with Acuña and Soto maintaining the top two spots in that order through ’29, as far as the exercise ran.

I’ll return to the Acuña-Soto battle in a moment, but having teased it long enough, here’s the full Acuña projection:

ZiPS Projections – Ronald Acuña Jr.
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .281 .389 .562 570 134 161 43 115 91 171 33 147 4 6.5
2022 .285 .396 .594 562 136 160 46 121 94 173 33 155 4 7.0
2023 .277 .394 .584 555 135 154 45 117 97 176 34 152 3 7.5
2024 .275 .395 .585 550 134 151 45 116 100 179 30 152 3 6.7
2025 .275 .400 .586 541 135 149 45 117 103 178 27 154 3 6.8
2026 .268 .394 .573 527 129 141 43 110 101 177 25 150 2 6.3
2027 .270 .396 .566 512 125 138 40 105 99 164 23 149 2 6.0
2028 .270 .394 .563 496 119 134 38 100 93 152 20 147 2 5.6
2029 .268 .391 .542 478 111 128 34 93 88 141 17 142 1 5.0
2030 .265 .383 .527 457 103 121 31 85 80 129 15 136 1 4.3
2031 .257 .373 .486 436 92 112 25 73 73 115 13 123 0 3.2
2032 .255 .365 .468 400 81 102 21 64 63 99 12 117 0 2.4
2033 .253 .357 .441 367 70 93 17 54 54 86 9 109 -1 1.7
2034 .249 .346 .420 338 61 84 14 46 45 74 7 100 -2 1.0
2035 .242 .330 .383 277 46 67 9 34 33 56 4 87 -3 0.1
2036 .240 .323 .368 171 26 41 5 19 18 32 2 81 -3 -0.2
Ages 23-38 .268 .383 .534 7237 1637 1936 501 1369 1232 2102 304 138 17 70.0
Thru Age 22 .281 .371 .538 1219 251 342 81 194 159 371 61 133 20 12.1
Total Thru 38 .269 .381 .534 8456 1888 2278 582 1563 1391 2473 365 137 37 82.1

Whew, those are some monster numbers. Acuña projects to be a 6–7.5 win player through the remainder of his 20s, bashing 40 or more homers a year and stealing upwards of 20 bags. While he projects to strike out more often than any player besides Reggie Jackson (2,597) and Jim Thome (2,548) by the end of this stretch, he also projects to post a home run total in their orbit; his 582 dingers would rank 12th all time, one short of Mark McGwire and three rungs ahead of Jackson (563). In fact, he projects to join Bonds, Rodriguez, and Mays as the only players to reach both 500 homers and 300 stolen bases.

With 82.1 career WAR and 46.8 peak WAR, Acuña’s 64.5 JAWS would rank eighth between Al Kaline (70.8) and Jackson (60.4), though by then Betts figures to be in the neighborhood as well. Through seven seasons, two of them partial (his 52-game rookie campaign and last year), the Dodgers’ star already has the 11th-highest peak score among right fielders (45.4) and would climb to ninth with a comparatively modest 5.0 WAR this year. Soto, if he stays in right, would climb into the top 10, too.

The Acuña-Soto head-to-head battle now tilts in the Washingtonian’s favor:

ZiPS Projections — Soto vs. Acuña
Year Soto OPS+ Soto WAR Acuña OPS+ Acuña WAR
2021 160 6.3 147 6.5
2022 172 7.0 155 7.0
2023 178 7.5 152 7.5
2024 176 7.4 152 6.7
2025 179 7.5 154 6.8
2026 180 7.5 150 6.3
2027 179 7.1 149 6.0
2028 173 6.5 147 5.6
2029 172 6.1 142 5.0
2030 167 5.5 136 4.3
2031 156 4.6 123 3.2
2032 148 3.6 117 2.4
2033 136 2.5 109 1.7
2034 125 1.6 100 1.0
2035 113 0.7 87 0.1
2036 81 -0.2
Total 163 91.0 137 82.1

Presumably, Soto now has the better odds of overtaking Trout in Dan’s long-term outlook, but all of this is subject to change as these players actually do the things that make us care about them enough to wade into these numbers in the first place.

Like Soto and Tatis, Acuña is off to a tremendous start that has already placed his name in the pantheon alongside some of baseball’s all-time greats, and the odds — remember, that’s a median projection above, based on a career that’s already 1,404 plate appearances deep — suggest his road will lead to Cooperstown, too. I’ve said this before, but it’s going to be a thrill to watch these careers unfold.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
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I’d never sleep on Acuna. Somebody cushier, like Vladdy Jr., maybe.

Nick Smith
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Nick Smith

Nice synergy with your user name.