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Despite leading all of baseball in hard-hit percentage and exit velocity, Atlanta’s offense has failed to reach the heights established by its 2020 lineup thus far. Manager Brian Snitker recently reshuffled the batting order to try and coax the team out of its collective slump.
The one player Snitker hasn’t dared to move around is Ronald Acuña Jr., who’s become baseball’s most feared leadoff hitter—if not its most feared hitter, period. Snitker toyed with moving Acuña to cleanup in 2019 for 36 games, to middling effect, and to second in 2018 for 26 games, to ill effect. The logic makes sense: give your young phenom an opportunity to drive in more runs in the middle of the order. But upon being asked that by reporters this week, Snitker merely said, “No, I’m done with that.”
Why mess with what’s worked in historic fashion? Acuña isn't the prototypical leadoff hitter—he's something better. The rocket-armed right fielder boasts 20 career leadoff home runs, which is already a club record, and has kept the Braves afloat during their early season swoon. Without him and Pablo Sandoval, who has three pinch-hit home runs this season, Atlanta (5–8) may still be searching for its first win. The 23-year-old’s dominance can be seen via the eye test, traditional stats, advanced metrics and Statcast’s batted ball data.
Acuña leads the majors with a 1.492 OPS, and as of Thursday evening, the second-place hitter (Dodgers veteran Justin Turner) was closer to the fifth-place hitter (Mike Trout) than Acuña. He also ranks first in—deep breath—hits, extra-base hits, runs, home runs, slugging percentage, total bases, offensive bWAR, total fWAR, OPS+ and win probability added. Statcast ranks him near the top of the league in nearly all of its primary offensive categories.
How has he unlocked a new level? It seems to be one part mechanical adjustment, one part mental adjustment.
Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer recently told The Athletic’s David O’Brien that since last year, the team worked with Acuña to flatten his swing so he could make contact with pitches in the upper part of the strike zone, a prior weakness.
"Well, he went into the offseason and he focused on those drills. And Day 1 of spring training, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. That is a whole different swing,'" Seitzer said. "I saw all spring he was getting to pitches that he hasn’t been able to get to, by just fouling them off. I don’t need balls to get crushed in tough quadrants of the strike zone, but to be able to at least foul them off and spoil them to give you another shot. He was able to do that this spring, and I was like, 'Holy cow, this has got a chance to be fun.'"
Acuña’s whiff rate has nearly been cut in half since last season, from 29.9% to 15.9%. His contact percentage on pitches in the zone has accordingly risen from 73.7% to 84.9%.
As is the case with most young hitters, Acuña has also developed better plate discipline. His chase rate has virtually been sliced in half, from 20% to 10.1%.
Put it all together, and Acuña’s one glaring weakness—a propensity to chase and whiff on too many pitches—has been greatly alleviated. Just like his whiff rate and chase rate, Acuña’s strikeout rate has been practically halved since last season, from 29.7% to 14.8%. That’s the lowest rate among 19 players with at least seven extra-base hits this season—and Acuña leads that group with 13.
Oh, and he’s got speed in spades. Acuña’s 29.3 feet/second sprint speed ranks sixth in MLB, while his three stolen bases (without being caught thus far) put him on pace for 37. Stolen bases aren’t as valued as they were during Rickey Henderson’s heyday, but if they were, it’s easy to imagine the guy who can beat out a routine ground ball swiping even more than he already does.
Henderson is regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, but he didn't possess Acuña's type of power. Henderson never hit 30 home runs in a season; Acuña already has a 40-homer campaign on his ledger.
In his first full season, Acuña fell three stolen bases short of becoming the fifth player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and swipe 40 bases in a season. Some may have reasonably thought that pace is unsustainable. Well, now he has 51 home runs and 43 stolen bases in his last 162 games. Perhaps that 50-50 season he spoke of last February, which would be the first ever, isn’t out of reach.
It sounds absurd, but you put a ceiling on Acuña at your own risk.
The Nationals are off to another one of their patented slow starts, back in last place in the NL East after suffering a complete meltdown Thursday against the Diamondbacks in the second inning. Washington gave up seven runs—after allowing three in the first—en route to an ugly 11–6 loss.
Patrick Corbin looked completely out of sorts, issuing three walks and hitting two batters in just two innings of work. The 31-year-old lefty also served up back-to-back long balls to Carson Kelly and Eduardo Escobar in the opening frame before allowing an opposite-field grand slam to No. 8 hitter Andrew Brown in the second. He wasn’t the only culprit, though; Corbin induced a potential inning-ending double play with the bases loaded before any runs had scored in the second inning, but second baseman Josh Harrison scuffed it. Corbin’s final line: 2 IP, 10 R, 9 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, 2 HBP, 3 HR, 1 K.
This inauspicious beginning is perhaps the most concerning of Washington’s previous ones of this era because of how uneven the team’s Big Three starters have appeared. Corbin’s disastrous outing Thursday followed a poor debut against the Dodgers. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg each have one promising start and one shaky start under their belts. Scherzer turns 37 in July and in his season debut against Atlanta gave up four home runs for the first time since 2011. Strasburg is coming off carpal tunnel surgery and against the Cardinals on Tuesday issued five walks for just the second time in his career, with the first time coming in 2010 in the second start of his career. Washington’s vaunted rotation now carries an NL-worst 6.50 ERA.
It’s too early to pen the obituary of the 2021 Nationals. We’re talking about small sample sizes here, and Joe Ross looks better than ever after opting out last season, sporting a 0.82 WHIP and 0.00 ERA after starts against the Dodgers and Cardinals.
But the Nationals won a World Series on the backs of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin in 2019. If they’re not in top form, it’s hard to imagine Washington qualifying for the playoffs, let alone returning to the Fall Classic.
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