Sluggers aren’t supposed to be fast and burners usually don’t have a lot of power.
For decades, MLB scouts, executives, and fans have been fascinated by players who can both hit home runs and steal bases in bunches.
That’s why players who can do both are universally admired in the league and also why they tend to make a lot of money. Power and speed are game-changers and teams recognize that.
There have been 447 20-20 seasons in the history of Major League Baseball, 65 30-30 campaigns (the most recent one belonging to Cedric Mullins in 2021) and just four 40-40 performances: Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics in 1988, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants in 1996, Alex Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners in 1998 and Alfonso Soriano of the Washington Nationals in 2006.
If we change the search parameters a bit, we find a total of 19 20-50 regular seasons. What about 30-50 seasons? Just two of those: Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds in 1987 and Bonds in 1990 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. is trying to become the first player in MLB history with a 40-50 season. Heading into Thursday’s games, the star from La Guaira, Venezuela had 21 long balls and 41 (!) thefts. He’s also batting .379 with six homers, nine RBIs and 11 steals over a 16-game hitting streak and was named the NL Player of the Month for June.
Many players would dream of posting a 20-40 season in the best league in the world. Well, Acuna has done it well before the All-Star break in 2023. He seems well on his way to the first NL MVP of his career and not just because of the power and speed combo.
Acuna has a .337 batting average (AVG), a .414 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .594 slugging percentage (SLG). He also sports an MLB-leading 6.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – only five others have surpassed the four-win threshold and none of them is over 5.0.
There were some concerns after the 2022 campaign that Acuna, who slashed .266/.351/.413 with a .764 OPS, wouldn’t return to his pre-injury form after tearing his ACL in July 2021.
Those concerns have been alleviated this year – and then some. The sixth-year veteran is one of a franchise-record eight players going to the MLB All-Star Game from Atlanta, including infielders Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and Orlando Arcia, pitchers Bryce Elder and Spencer Strider, and catcher Sean Murphy.
A player who is concerned about his knee doesn’t attempt 48 steals and certainly doesn’t succeed in 41 of them.
Will he reach 40-50 for the first time? The steals are almost a lock, as he only needs nine more. The home runs? It gets trickier, but he does have a good chance.
History is on his side on that one. He knocked 41 balls out of the park in 2019 and was on pace to hit 40 or more in both 2020 and 2021. The former was the shortened 60-game season, while the latter was cut short because of the knee injury.
Current performance also suggests he can hit at least 40 home runs and we can measure it with a series of advanced stats. BIP+ examines factors such as the velocity, movement, location, count and other factors of a pitch to determine how much damage he inflicts once he makes contact.
The two-time Silver Slugger winner’s BIP this season is 160, well over the league average value of 100. In fact, it’s good enough to rank 19th in MLB. BIP+ is one of the three components of an at-bat. The other two are discipline+ and contact+.
Discipline+ uses the same factors to assess how good a hitter is at discerning balls from strikes, while contact+ is almost self-explanatory. Both metrics, like BIP+, have 100 as the league-average value.
Acuna is one of only 18 qualified batters to rank above the league average (100) in all three categories and he’s No. 1 in raw value+ among those players, ahead of Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays and Pete Alonso of the New York Mets in the top five . RV considers plate discipline, quantity and quality of contact – launch angle, exit velocity, horizontal spray angle, and more – to evaluate hitting performance on a per-pitch basis, rather than just examining the outcome of the at-bat.
We have already mentioned his excellent 160 BIP+, but he also boasts a 107 discipline+ and a 106 contact+. When it comes to hitting, there are no glaring weaknesses in his profile.
Acuna ranks second in baseball behind Shohei Ohtani with an elite 168.6 RV+.
We can also take a close look at total raw value, which is a cumulative stat. In this one, the Braves star is also second behind Ohtani with 32. If the Japanese two-way performer is the clear MVP frontrunner in the American League, the same can be said about Acuna in the National League.
Acuna looks very much improved in comparison with his 2022 version. He had a 130 RV+ last year, which was well above the league average but nowhere near his 2023 performance. He’s also increased his BIP+ (from 147 to 160) and contact+ (from 101 to 106).
He has been a complete nightmare for opposing pitchers, as he doesn’t rate above the league average (100 RV+) against just three offerings: changeups thrown by righties (97), cut fastballs by right-handers (56) and cut fastballs by lefties (-52).
So if you are a pitcher and feeling adventurous, try and work Acuna with cutters. You will need perfect command, though. Good luck with that.
Acuna is healthy, hungry, and motivated, and plays for the best team in baseball. He is in a very good position to become baseball’s first 40-50 man, though he’ll need to keep up his power pace.
There are two things that may prevent Acuna from reaching 40 bombs, though. One is his rather high groundball rate to this point. He’s hitting nearly half of his balls on the ground at 49.8%. He has a career-high 1.93 grounders for every fly ball and that will need to be corrected to improve his chances.
The other circumstance that may interfere with Acuna’s quest for baseball history is rest. In this particular scenario, the Braves being so good might represent a threat to his playing time late in the season because the team probably might want to rest him for the playoffs if they achieve early entry.
That’s a discussion for another time, though. For now, let’s all marvel at the guy in right field who is 10th in baseball in home runs and second in stolen bases and batting average.
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