Home Sports MLB’s first 40/60 player? Inside Ronald Acuna Jr.’s return to MVP form

MLB’s first 40/60 player? Inside Ronald Acuna Jr.’s return to MVP form

MLB’s first 40/60 player? Inside Ronald Acuna Jr.’s return to MVP form

MARIETTA, Ga. — The living room of Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s two-story, craftsman-style home looks more like a sports memorabilia store, replete with mementos from a career that blossomed earlier than most. All-MLB plaques and commemorative baseballs dot two sets of bookcases on each side of a white fireplace. A signed lineup card from last year’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles sits on one, a Team Venezuela batting helmet from this year’s World Baseball Classic rests on the other. In the middle, an oversized picture of a smiling, 20-year-old, tuxedoed Acuña posing with the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Award overlooks it all.

Acuña, now 25, takes no credit for the arrangement.

“That was my mom,” he says in Spanish. “She’s the one who decorates.”

It’s an overcast, muggy afternoon on May 18, a Thursday off-day that doesn’t quite feel like one because Acuña and his Atlanta Braves teammates didn’t touch down from Texas until 3 a.m. The past four games of that road trip saw Acuña unleash four home runs that averaged 440 feet. A little more than a quarter of the season has transpired at this point, and Acuña stands on pace to surpass 40 home runs, 60 stolen bases, 100 RBIs and 150 runs, a combination of numbers that have never been reached.

Acuña, wearing tight-fitting black pants with blue-and-white bands that resemble streaks of lightning and high-top sneakers that were clearly designed to match, smiles at the thought of what 2023 is becoming.

Acuña looks like the most exhilarating, dynamic baseball player in the world again, a sentiment that extends beyond his numbers (a .332/.419/.577 slash line, 11 homers, 22 steals and 2.6 FanGraphs wins above replacement, tops among position players). He’s wreaking havoc on the basepaths, crushing prodigious home runs with regularity and making highlight-reel defensive plays seem routine.

It all feels, well, normal, as if this is how it always goes. As if it hadn’t been three years — four if you count the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season — since this version of Acuña presented itself with regularity.

To Acuña, though, none of this feels like a given, not when those three years featured a devastating knee injury and a subpar return from it. Through it all, one of the most outwardly confident athletes of our time wondered if he’d ever be good again.

IT WAS JULY 2021, and Acuña couldn’t stop crying. An awkward landing on a leaping attempt in Miami had caused a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, an injury that typically comes with an eight- to 12-month recovery and leaves an uncertain future beyond it. Acuña, then only 23, had already secured a $100 million extension and was three days shy of his second All-Star Game start, in the middle of his best year yet. Now he had to wonder if he would ever be the same.

“He cried every day,” Acuña’s mother, Leonelis Blanco, said in Spanish. “It wasn’t just every day — it was the whole day. He was distraught, crying, crying, wondering about his leg.”

Acuña — with a father, Ronald Sr., who spent six years in the New York Mets‘ minor league system, and four cousins, most notably Kelvim and Alcides Escobar, who reached the majors — lived and breathed baseball since birth, Leonelis said. When he was 9, he was appreciably better than the other children his age in La Guaira, a port city in northern Venezuela. At 11, it was clear he would make a career out of the sport.

Leonelis had only known Acuña to be excellent and assertive. But in the two weeks that spanned his ACL tear and subsequent surgery, he was exceedingly vulnerable, refusing to watch baseball games and pondering the possibility of never playing again. Most of his days were spent lying in bed. Leonelis never left his side. She played music, cooked his favorite foods, brought up other topics of conversation and did her best to project positivity. When the subject of baseball inevitably returned, she clung to three phrases.

Paciencia, hijo. (Patience, son.)

Confía en ti. (Believe in yourself.)

Libera tu mente. (Free your mind.)

“Terrible,” Leonelis said of those conversations, every one of which she remembers. “It was really, really hard.”

As his knee improved, so too did Acuña’s state of mind. Simply ditching the wheelchair to walk on crutches noticeably lifted his spirits. Later that season, while the Braves excelled with a makeshift outfield constructed before the end of July, he found joy through his teammates’ success. When the World Series came, he asked to be cleared for travel. It allowed him to be in Houston on Nov. 2, when the Braves became one of the most improbable champions in recent memory. That night, Acuña’s body froze. He then felt a chill run through both of his arms. The tears flowed shortly thereafter.

“I cried out of joy,” Acuña said, “but also I cried because I couldn’t be there with my teammates. I couldn’t be there day to day; I couldn’t be there with them.”

Those feelings directly impacted the following season.

“He missed it so much in ’21, when we won a championship, that he was definitely going to be part of the team in ’22,” Braves first-base coach Eric Young said. “It didn’t matter. If he was well enough to go, he was going out [even if not fully healthy]. That was his mentality. And I don’t fault him for that.”

ACUÑA RETURNED TO the Braves on April 28, 2022, and played in 119 of the team’s remaining 143 regular-season games, plus four more in the playoffs — but he was never truly himself.

Young, Acuña’s coach through his entire major league career, noticed it in how slowly he cut off base hits in the gap. Austin Riley, Acuña’s teammate dating to rookie ball, noticed it in the batting cage, where the ball didn’t quite jump off his bat like it used to. Braves third-base coach Ron Washington, going on his sixth decade in the major leagues, noticed it in how infrequently his typical burst would arrive on the bases. Brian Snitker, his manager, noticed it in the deluge of reports from the training staff that detailed Acuña’s constant need for treatment.

Acuña felt it everywhere — when he didn’t rotate his hips quickly enough to reach fastballs, when he didn’t explode well enough to track down distant fly balls, when he didn’t come out of his stride fast enough to steal bases.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself, like, ‘I have to get back to being who I was before,’ and I think that influenced a lot,” Acuña said. “Things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. The knee — there were days when it wouldn’t hurt, I’d go out and play a hundred percent and I’d tell myself, ‘I’m back,’ but then the next day the pain would return. It just kept going like that.”

Acuña was selected by fans as the starting right fielder in the All-Star Game, but he finished with a .764 OPS that fell 161 points below his career mark heading into 2022. He stole 29 bases but was thrown out an NL-leading 11 times. Defensively, he was credited with negative-seven outs above average, placing him among the worst at his position.

On the outside, Acuña continued to flaunt jewelry and smear eye black and celebrate boisterously.

Inside, doubt consumed him.

“I would tell my mom, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I’ll ever run the same again.’ Or my dad, ‘You think I’ll go back to playing the same?'” Acuña said. “The pain was not easy. The operation also was not easy. So I doubted many times. I would tell my friends, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to play that way again.’ Every time I would go play, I doubted.”

IN 2018, Young’s first season coaching Braves outfielders coincided with Acuña’s rookie year. The two have been inseparable since. If anybody can reach Acuña, it’s Young. And when the 2022 season ended, Young felt the need.

A week after the 101-win Braves were eliminated by the resurgent Philadelphia Phillies in mid-October, Young called Acuña to chat. He wanted to help set the tone for what would become the most important offseason of Acuña’s career.

“You talk about the best players in the game — Ronald Acuña’s name’s got to be mentioned,” Young recalled saying. “And I told him, ‘It’s not going to be mentioned because you’ve got these skills and you’re talented. You have to do it in between the lines each and every single day to gain respect from your peers. Your peers are the ones telling you who’s the best player in the game. If you go out there and you do the things that you’re capable of, there’s no other person out there that can do it like you.'”

Young’s words helped to reaffirm a mindset Acuña was already carrying with him. He waited another week or so for his knee to become fully healthy — it finally did at the start of November, convenient yet cruel timing — then set out to test it like never before.

“I told myself, ‘I have to work and I have to get back to being 100 percent,'” Acuña said. “‘It’s either going to be 100 percent the good way or 100 percent the bad way.'”

Acuña wanted to play as much baseball as possible as quickly as possible. He planned to take part in the Venezuelan Winter League in December, then represent his country in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Before that, though, he would take a detour to the Dominican Republic to hit with Fernando Tatis Sr., the former major league third baseman and father of one of his closest friends.

Acuña and Fernando Tatis Jr., the San Diego Padres‘ superstar shortstop-turned-outfielder, met near the end of April 2019, when Tatis paid his first visit to Atlanta early in his rookie season.

“You feel the chemistry from the moment you say hello,” Acuña said. “You say, ‘That’s going to be my brother.’ It’s just a good vibe. Since then, we’ve been brothers.”

Three and a half years later, from Nov. 10 until around Thanksgiving, Acuña and Tatis met on a field in Tatis’ hometown of San Pedro de Marcoris and tried to rediscover their respective selves. Tatis, on the heels of a season lost both to a motorcycle accident and a steroid suspension, wore a cast on a surgically repaired left wrist that limited him to conditioning work. Acuña, meanwhile, hit almost daily under the watchful eye of a man famous for once belting two grand slams in a single inning.

Early on, Tatis Sr. suggested a minor tweak that turned into a major adjustment. He asked Acuña to lower his hands ever so slightly during his setup, down near the bottom part of his chest, making his bat parallel to his upper body in order to get its barrel through the strike zone more quickly.

“I was open to everything,” Acuña said. “It’s why I went down there.”

Acuña struggled mightily to hit fastballs last season, slugging only .416 against four-seamers, 56 points below the major league average. This year, it’s up to .773. His strikeout rate has been cut nearly in half, down to 14.1%. He is a better, more complete hitter than he ever has been, a product, he believes, of the changes he made in the D.R.

Acuña, a deep admirer of legendary countryman Miguel Cabrera, hopes to someday win a batting title. At this rate, at least, he’ll secure his third Silver Slugger Award in five months.

“If I do,” Acuña said, “I’ll give it to Fernando.”

YOUNG HAD BEEN keeping close tabs on Acuña’s offseason work, and by the onset of spring training, he saw a new, more mature version up close. Acuña used to lag through the various stations of workouts, but suddenly he was displaying what Young described as “more focus, more intent” during outfield drills that often seemed to bore him.

The attention to detail, Braves coaches said, has spilled into the regular season, where Young said he is “not running away from any type of challenge in preparing for the game.”

Acuña believes being a father — he has two boys, a 2-year-old and a 7-month-old — has brought a new level of maturity. Suffering the ACL tear in 2021, Young says, humbled him like never before. But simply being ordinary for perhaps the first time in his life might have played just as big a role in his transformation.

“I think he found out what he is, what he looks like, when he’s not healthy,” Washington said, “and that’s the player he doesn’t want to be.”

Acuña, Washington added, is no longer solely relying on his eye-popping physical talent. He works diligently on his baserunning technique and studies pitcher tendencies for the first time, a focus that, when combined with new rules that have created a more favorable stolen-base environment, have led to a 91.7% success rate. He’s reading balls off the bat during pregame batting practice on a near-daily basis, as opposed to once a week. He’s more diligent with his physical therapy and plyometric exercises. Lapses still occur, but they’re far more infrequent.

“He used to hit ground balls, and if it wasn’t a base hit he didn’t run ’em out,” Washington said. “Now, he’s making those son of a b—-es make plays out there. He’s running everything out.”

Last year, Braves trainers talked to NFL trainers to pick their brains about how running backs recovered from ACL tears like Acuña’s. They were told that most players needed a full season and offseason to get back to their previous standards. It’s a message the team continued to impart on Acuña, but one he didn’t fully believe until experiencing it first hand.

And by the time he felt completely healthy, that doubt had become fuel.

“I would hear people saying, ‘He’s not going to run the same anymore, he’s not going to be the same baseball player because people don’t come back well from this surgery,'” Acuña said. “It was frustrating to hear people talk like that. But also, it motivated me. I practiced, I trained hard, I fought and now they’re mistaken.”

RILEY HAS FOUND himself on a dugout’s top step for every one of Acuña’s plate appearances this season.

“Just waiting for something to happen,” Riley said. “It’s pretty special.”

Acuña hasn’t disappointed. Through the season’s first eight weeks, he ranks within the top 3% in exit velocity and hard-hit rate, within the top 17% in sprint speed and within the top 1% — better yet, second among 187 qualified players — in arm strength. Defensive metrics, prone to faultiness in small samples, still grade him as a below-average right fielder. But Acuña has already accumulated six outfield assists and turned in a handful of sensational plays, including two leaping catches against the outfield fence of his home ballpark.

Meanwhile, his already prodigious home runs have been legendary.

“It looks effortless,” Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies said. “He just hits the ball and the ball keeps going.”

Acuña unleashed a 461-foot home run to straightaway center field May 3 and followed with a 470-foot moonshot to left May 10. Five days later, he swung at a curveball only 1.3 feet off the ground and lined it 454 feet to left-center. Acuña has already totaled a major league-leading nine home runs that have traveled at least 420 feet, three more than the second-place Aaron Judge, who outweighs him by 80 pounds. In May alone, he has hit four home runs at least 450 feet. Every other player in the sport has combined for 18 of those this month.

“He’s on his legs now, and you’re seeing what he can do,” Snitker said. “And he’s maturing. He’s growing up — physically, mentally, the whole thing. The kid’s starting to come into his own. It’s kinda scary what he’s capable of, honestly.”

Acuña has acted as a crucial tone-setter for a Braves team that is already 12 games above .500 and 5½ games up in first place, slashing .500/.540/.804 when leading off the first inning. He’s only three points shy of a 1.000 OPS, a mark reached by only six leadoff hitters since 1900, and is on pace to finish as the third player in major league history to combine 30-plus home runs with 50-plus stolen bases, not to mention the first to 30 and 60.

He’s all the way back, but he’s also better than ever.

Those who know him well are bullish.

“Acuña wants to be the best,” Young said. “And if Acuña wants to be the best, his best is the MVP, in my mind. He’s going to be the MVP this year. It’s a prediction. I’m confident in that prediction.”

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