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:
|Harry Hooper||Red Sox||Senators||5/30/1913|
|Brady Anderson||Orioles||White Sox||8/21/1999|
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:
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:
|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|
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.
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.