There are few things in this world that frustrate me more than recency bias and using small sample sizes to justify an uninformed or misguided opinion.
Take for example the game against the Cubs yesterday. There have been more than a few people that want multiple bullpen arms released because of what was a truly awful inning of baseball that resulted in the Braves losing a substantial late inning lead. Some want Brian Snitker’s head on a pike. All of this while ignoring the fact that the Braves have been largely quite good in 2018 so far, the bullpen (before yesterday’s outing) has been largely excellent including guys like Jose Ramirez and Sam Freeman who struggled yesterday, and the fact that they were playing in 25+ mph winds with rain and mist falling and it was near freezing temperatures. The game should not have been played (both teams have basically said so), but lets draw conclusions from an inning...right....
That brings me to a real source of irritation and that is what should be the impending arrival of Ronald Acuna Jr. to the major leagues. There are a few things that have been clear for quite a while: 1) Ronald Acuna is extremely talented and really good at the game of baseball, 2) He will likely be an improvement over a significant sample size over most if not all of the Braves’ current options in the outfield, and 3) The Braves were always going to hold him in the minors to preserve an extra year of service time. We all knew this going into this year and pretending otherwise is silly. Some may have a problem with #3, but it was far from an unreasonable decision from the Braves perspective.
In the context of #1 and #2, what we saw in Spring Training wasn’t necessarily surprising as Acuna slashed .432/.519/.727 over 16 games. That is quite good....despite his slow start in the first four games that saw him slash .231/.231/.231 without a single extra-base hit to be found.
However, there is this narrative that is coming out from some fans and media that somehow Acuna’s slow start in Triple-A which could easily be explained by small sample sizes, a guy wanting to get called up as soon as possible and is pressing a bit at the late as a result, that he isn’t being pitched to in the minors (because he is good) so he is expanding his strike zone to try and make something happen, or the fact that that weather and temps have been miserable this spring (no one on that Gwinnett team is hitting) are reasons to hold him down.
That narrative is ridiculous on a number of levels. One, it ignores the fact that Acuna slashed .325/.374/.522 across three levels of the minors last season showing power to all fields and game-changing speed at the tender age of 19. It ignores the fact that he was raking in Spring Training. It ignores how he showed out in spring and if the service time rules weren’t in place, he would have started the season patrolling left field (before you head to the comments section, yes...I understand that many want an outfield of Tucker, Inciarte, and Acuna and for the Braves to somehow jettison Nick Markakis. I don’t disagree, but I am going with the most likely outcome here). It also ignores the opinions of virtually every scout and prospect follower on planet Earth and it is hard for me to think that they are all wrong.
The danger of evaluation in small sample sizes is that it defies common sense and ignores bigger picture analysis while making all of us slaves to the moment. Would you want a first baseman that has a wRC+ of 43 and a -0.3 fWAR through 13 games in the major leagues? Well, that is what Joey Votto has put up so far for the Reds and I feel pretty confident that they aren’t too worried about him. Corey Seager is batting .196/.268/.255 through 12 games....I guess the Dodgers need to send him back to Triple-A for a refresher course on how to play baseball again.
Whats that? You want minor league numbers leading up to guy’s getting called up to the majors? I guess I can try that....how about a guy that had gone 8 for 32 (three more hits than Acuna over the same span) in the eight games before he was called up from Triple-A....that was Ozzie Albies. How about a guy that was batting .237 over an 11 game stretch for Gwinnett? Well, that was Dansby Swanson. Sure, he had growing pains in 2017 and there is no doubt that Acuna could have some growing pains, too...but if we are looking at small sample sizes, Dansby Swanson seems to have worked out just fine. How about a non-Braves one? How about a guy slashing .243/.325/.365 over 21 games in Triple-A before getting called up to the majors at a young age? That was Bryce Harper....I hear he is pretty good even though, for reasons that elude me, a vocal minority of Braves’ fans absolutely do not want him to ever play in Atlanta.
Look...I get some of it. The strikeouts have been more plentiful than they should, but this is a guy playing for a promotion at this very moment and he wants to show out, so some early season impatience isn’t a crazy notion. It doesn’t mean he is magically a different player than he was a few weeks ago. Acuna’s BABIP is also .211 which suggests that not only has he been a bit impatient, but also unlucky as that is nearly 200 points lower than his career average. You shouldn’t make call-up or roster decisions based on early season small samples....period.
Others have said that it isn’t necessarily just because Acuna has started slow, but also because Preston Tucker has been so good, too. One, Preston’s track record in the majors is iffy at best with some worrying platoon trends in the past. Two, he has two hits in his last seven games. Three, just because Acuna gets called up doesn’t mean Tucker has to disappear. Color me interested in rotating Tucker into the outfield to give Ender and Markakis days off, especially when there are platoon splits in play. I like Tucker and I think he can hit, but he isn’t a defensive plus nor does he have the upside of Acuna. Hopefully the Braves find a way to keep him on the roster and find a better candidate (looking at you, Peter Bourjos) to shed from the bench.
I will close with this: what exactly is Acuna going to work on in Triple-A? How to hit veteran junkballers? I guess there is value in that, but it seems pretty dubious. You are not going to a find a plethora of tests against major league “stuff” in the International League. There are a lot more journeymen and quad-A types than there are guys who give a good comparison for what they will see in the majors. There could easily be things they want to work on him with, but that could be done with the major league coaching staff with resources and scouting that isn’t as available to him in the minors. He might not start off great in the majors, but player development isn’t usually a linear path and the likelihood that his 2018 start is an aberration more than a cause for concern is quite high.
If the Braves thought that Acuna was good enough to make the team out of spring training (but didn’t because it was likely to be the best business decision), then they should call him up Monday. If they don’t, that will be a shame and would make me wonder about the decision-making. At best, there is something specific external from the numbers that they want him to work on and, for some reason, they think that work is best done at Triple-A although that doesn’t seem like the best course to yours truly. In the likely scenario (in the case he wasn’t called up), there would be a determination that his slow start means he needs more time...the thoughts on why that is silly are outlined above. In the worst case, Acuna’s slow start is used as a pretext to help manipulate Super Two status in some way or some other roster nonsense. Not a highly likelihood outcome, but it would be worth monitoring based on when he would actually get called up.
Look, all of this angst could be for naught as the Braves could just call up Ronald Acuna on Monday and everyone will be excited and will continue to be excited if he starts of strong. Or, on the other hand, if he goes 0-8 in his first two games, fans will start calling him a bust. Hooray small sample sizes!