Ronald Acuña Is Making History

Braves rookie Ronald Acuña has been on a tear lately. On Monday against the Marlins in Atlanta, the 20-year-old phenom did something that only three other players have done in over a century: lead off both games of a doubleheader with a home run. In the opener on Monday afternoon, the makeup of an August 1 rainout, Acuña clubbed Miami starter Pablo López’s fifth pitch of the game, a center-cut 93 mph four-seamer, an estimated 414 feet to center field:

Acuña later added a two-run double in that contest, which Braves went on to win, 9-1. In the nightcap, he hit the first pitch of Merandy Gonzalez’s first start, also a well-centered 93 mph four-seamer (jeez, kid, watch the tapes) an estimated 441 feet to center:

The Braves took that one as well, 6-1. With that pair of homers, Acuna etched himself in the record books:

Leadoff Homers in Both Games of Doubleheader
Player Team Opponent Date
Harry Hooper Red Sox Senators 5/30/1913
Rickey Henderson A’s Indians 7/5/1993
Brady Anderson Orioles White Sox 8/21/1999
Ronald Acuña Braves Marlins 8/13/2018
SOURCE: STATS

Note that Baseball-Reference defines only visiting team players who homer in the first plate appearance of a game as leadoff homers, a definition that fits only Hooper above. Other stat services include home team leadoff hitters in their counts. Via that definition, Henderson is the record-holder for leadoff homers, with 81 of his 297 homers kicking off the festivities. He’s in the Hall of Fame, as is Hooper, a speedy right fielder and table-setter for four World Series-winning Red Sox teams (1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918). Anderson, a three-time All-Star in 15 seasons with the Orioles, Red Sox, and Indians, is best remembered for his 50 homers in 1996, 35 of which came from the top spot in the lineup (formerly a record); 44 of his career 210 homers led off games.

Acuña is in impressive company there, but in the words of the Cat in the Hat, “That is not all! Oh, no. That is not all.” Including his home runs against the Brewers on Saturday and Sunday, he became the youngest player ever to homer in four straight games according to the Elias Sports Bureau. What’s more, he has five homers in his last six games, seven in his last 14 games, 10 in his last 22 games, and 17 in his 66-game MLB career. Among this year’s crop of rookies, he’s fifth in dingers behind the Padres’ Christian Villanueva (20), the Yankees’ Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, and the White Sox’ Daniel Palka (18 apiece). Those players have anywhere from 14 to 146 more plate appearances thus far, as does the 19-year-old NL rookie who has stolen some of Acuña’s thunder, namely the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Acuña’s numbers don’t pop quite like those of Soto, who is about 10 months younger and debuted 25 days after Acuña’s April 25 debut. The big difference is in the two players’ plate discipline:

NL East Phenoms
Player PA HR SB BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Acuña 284 17 8 7.4% 28.5% .282 .342 .552 138 2.0
Soto 310 15 2 17.1% 18.4% .301 .421 .547 157 2.6

Soto’s plate discipline is elite regardless of his age; what he’s doing is just unreal, as Jeff Sullivan illustrated recently. That may mean he walks home with the Rookie of the Year hardware, but it shouldn’t detract from appreciating what Acuña’s doing, particularly for a team that’s running seven games ahead of Soto and the Nats in the NL East standings.

What’s more, it’s worth noting that Acuña, who missed a month due to an ACL sprain in his left knee, appears to be gaining some discipline. Before the All-Star break, he hit .249/.304/.438 for a 99 wRC+ with a 6.5% walk rate and a 30.4% strikeout rate; since then, he’s hit .344/.410/.767 for a 210 wRC+ — he’s fourth in the majors in the last two of those numbers since the break — with a 9.0% walk rate and 25.0% strikeout rate. His K-BB% has dropped from 23.9% to 16.0%, his outside-the-zone swing rate from 32.2% to 24.4%, and his swinging strike rate from 12.4% to 9.9%. The kid is locked in right now.

With his WAR now at 2.0, Acuña and 21-year-old teammate Ozzie Albies — who’s in the midst of a very solid season himself (.280/.315/.493, 115 wRC+, 3.5 WAR) — have already joined an impressive list. It’s quite rare for a team to get at least 1.5 WAR from two players 21 or younger in the same season:

Teammates 21 and Under With at Least 1.5 WAR
Year Team Player Age WAR Player Age WAR
1939 Red Sox Ted Williams* 20 7.1 Bobby Doerr* 21 2.5
1959 Giants Orlando Cepeda* 21 3.5 Willie McCovey* 21 3.1
1965 Astros Joe Morgan* 21 5.1 Rusty Staub 21 1.6
1973 Brewers Darrell Porter 21 3.6 Bob Coluccio 21 2.1
1975 Expos Gary Carter* 21 3.2 Larry Parrish 21 1.6
1978 Tigers Lou Whitaker 21 3.4 Alan Trammell* 20 2.7
2003 Devil Rays Carl Crawford 21 1.9 Rocco Baldelli 21 1.8
2018 Braves Ozzie Albies 21 3.4 Ronald Acuña 20 2.0
* = Hall of Fame

Seven players from among the seven pairs preceding Acuña and Albies are in the Hall of Fame, and I’m a huge advocate for an eighth (Whitaker), but then if you read what I wrote about the frequency with which such young players wind up in Cooperstown, you won’t be surprised. Williams and Doerr are inextricably linked; they spent their entire careers together (save for military service) with the Red Sox, leading them to the 1946 AL pennant. While Williams was elected by the writers on the first ballot in 1966, Doerr didn’t gain entry until the Veterans Committee smiled upon him in 1986 — a Veterans Committee that had just been graced by the presence of one Theodore Samuel Williams, ahem.

Cepeda and McCovey, both natural first basemen and back-to-back Rookies of the Year in 1958 and 1959, respectively, created all sorts of headaches for the Giants with their awkward forays to the outfield in an attempt to fit both into the lineup. They helped the Giants to the 1962 NL pennant and each went on to win MVP awards. Morgan and Staub both debuted for the 1963 Colt .45s and had matured into solid regulars by 1965; the former needs little introduction, but the latter racked up 2,716 hits and 292 homers as a larger-than-life icon and philanthropist at every stop. Carter actually spent more of his rookie season playing right field (92 games) instead of catching (66 games), while 23-year-old backstop Barry Foote, who had been solid the year before, slipped below the Mendoza Line, while Parrish made two All-Star teams and bopped 256 homers in his 15-year career. Trammell and Whitaker set a record as the longest-running double play combo in major-league history (1,918 games); the former was just inducted into Cooperstown last month. Baldelli and Crawford gave Devil Rays fans something to cheer about.

There’s only one truly obscure player on this list — namely Coluccio, a right fielder whose MLB career lasted just five seasons and 370 games. After hitting .224/.311/.411 (102 wRC+) with 15 homers as a rookie, he hit just .218/.300/.315 (78 wRC+) thereafter, and blamed hitting coach Harvey Kuenn for curbing his aggressive approach in an effort to turn him into a prototypical leadoff hitter. His partner in youth, Porter, was a four-time All-Star who served as the backstop for three pennant-winners, and won both NLCS and World Series MVP honors for the Cardinals in 1982.

Interestingly enough, none of those young duos made the playoffs in the above seasons. While the expanded playoff format certainly gives Acuña and Albies a leg up in that department — the 66-51 Braves have a 59.6% chance of making it, according to our odds — it would be yet another cool slice of history for the pair to claim.

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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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carter
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carter

If Acuna continues his tear he very well could end up being the ROY, I don’t think it is a given that it goes to Soto.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

If he literally continues playing this way, he will probably win the MVP.

dukewinslow
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dukewinslow

Extrapolating from the last 4 games, he will be voted into the Hall of Fame on the strength of this season alone.

DBA455
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DBA455

I hadn’t thought of Acuna as a slugger (eg, more of an all-around player, with some plate discipline, speed, etc) – but looking back over the past few decades, it seems like the best comp for his rookie/age-20 season is … Giancarlo Stanton?

RA: 7%BB/28%K/.288 ISO/.345 BABIP
GS: 9%/31%/.248/.330

There are obviously some league-adjustments to make there (which would make Acuna’s K-rate look less worrisome relative to the current field but his ISO perhaps more in line with Stanton’s) but it’s a pretty good comp. And not what I was expecting as recently as a few months ago.

The list of players who hit this well, this young, and didn’t develop into sustained offensive superstars is basically: Jason Heyward.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

That last part is quite an “ouch” for Braves fans. Acuna does seem to have elite speed, but so far he is not at all maximizing it defensively or on the bases. Also, the 70 grade that was given to his arm is definitely too high. It has been suggested with the number of elite defensive outfielders that are in the Braves system (mostly Inciarte now and Pache in the future, but also maybe Waters), that Acuna would be best served bulking up slightly into more of a power hitter. Well, I guess he doesn’t really need to bulk up for that, given what we’ve seen.

Sn0wman
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Sn0wman

For just a moment ignoring the stats and reverting to the eyes, the player Acuna most reminds me of (as a hitter) is Gary Sheffield., Remember that elite bat speed, hard hit balls left and right, and third base coaches leaving their box and hiding near the dugout to avoid screaming liners? That’s the kind of slugger Acuna is. Numbers-wise he may comp to Stanton, but he’s not the muscled up strongman slugger.

TimBrownU
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TimBrownU

Acuna leads Soto in bWAR 2.5-2.0 compared to Soto over Acuna in fWAR 2.6-2.0 FWIW. In fewer games also.

carter
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carter

Now what, 2.5 WAR? Sweet mother of god.

Rahul Kumar
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Rahul Kumar

As a Giants fan, while Dereck Rodriguez might not be the front-runner for ROY, or even the most deserving candidate, it’s criminal that he’s not even in the conversation. He’s got 2.5 bWAR, and even fWAR’s got him at 1.8