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2022 Atlanta Braves Season in Review: Ronald Acuña, Jr.

Coming back from a torn right ACL suffered in 2021, the Braves’ biggest star didn’t shine as brightly in 2022.

Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Four Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

Ronald Acuña, Jr., the brightest of the Atlanta Braves’ stars, has the gravitational pull befitting his status. Whether it’s his flair for the dramatic, his energetic celebrations or his outsize status as a magnet for criticism, Acuña remains the piece that others orbit around. He is the center of the franchise’s core that is locked up long-term, and the team’s success has often gone hand-in-hand with his own throughout his early career.

How Acquired

Acuña signed with the Braves as an international free agent out of Venezuela in the summer of 2014 for $100,000. Four years later, as a 20-year-old in 2018, Acuña made his MLB debut in April. By the end of that season, he had won the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award.

Before the 2019 campaign started, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos locked up Acuña to an eight-year, $100 million contract, with a pair of option years to take the deal as high as 10 seasons and $124 million. At the time, the contract made Acuña the youngest MLB player to sign a nine-figure deal. In 2022, his age 24 season, Acuña was in the fourth year of that deal.

What Were the Expectations?

Coming off the torn ACL in his right knee suffered in the summer of 2021, expectations for Acuña’s 2022 season were tempered. An offseason full of Instagram stories showing intense rehab work had fans frothing about the possibility that Acuña could be ready to take the field on Opening Day. Meanwhile, Braves execs and coaches preached caution and patience.

Even accounting for missing the season’s first month, ZiPS, via Fangraphs was high on Acuña coming back to make a massive impact for the 2022 Braves. Projecting a 143 OPS+ with 35 HR and 84 RBI, ZiPS had Acuña with 4.8 WAR, the highest estimated total on the team. This did not seem unreasonable given that he had put together 4.3 fWAR in half a season in 2021, and thrown together 5.4 fWAR in his last full season back in 2019. Even with him coming off injury, it was hard to really expect considerably less than a 4-WAR campaign...

2022 Results

... but looking back now on Acuña’s 2022, it probably wasn’t fair to have such high expectations for such an athletic player coming off a major injury to his lower body. As has been shown countless times across many sports, it can take 18-24 months to get back to normal from a complete ACL tear, like Acuña had. Knowing that, it makes Acuña’s first two months of production at the plate all the more incredible.

Through the end of June, Acuña amassed a wRC+ of 131 with a .372 OBP and .827 OPS. While those numbers might not be quite what we are used to seeing out of Acuña, they certainly were eye-popping considering he hadn’t hit the one-year mark since his ACL injury in July of 2021. (For those wondering, he had a .360 wOBA with a .384 xwOBA in that span.) The second half of the season wasn’t the same for Acuña, as his wRC+ dipped to 104 and his OPS plummeted nearly 100 points to .728. However, he was still hitting well with a .355 xwOBA — it’s just that his continued underperformance (.321 wOBA) took his line into a more average direction.

In total, Acuña accounted for just 2.2 fWAR, posting the lowest Offensive Runs Above Average (13.7) and Defensive Runs Above Average (-10.7) seasons in his career, per Fangraphs. He slashed .266/.351/.413 with 15 HR and 50 RBI. While he did manage to steal 29 bases, he was caught a career high 11 times. While he did post the lowest xwOBA of his career at .366, one of the real culprits damaging his final line was that he underperformed it by .031, tying with 2019 for the biggest such underperformance of his career. The other culprit was that he was forced to time DHing to keep himself fresh, and that his outfield play was pretty horrid when he was in the field. Not unexpected, perhaps, but still a large drag on his value — he’d have been worth 3.3 fWAR instead of 2.2 if he just played defense at his pre-2022 career rate.

What went right? What went wrong?

There’s a lot to unpack here regarding Acuña’s 2022 season, some good, some bad and much of it nuanced. However, all Atlanta Braves fans can appreciate one thing – it’s a near superhuman feat that Ronald Acuña, Jr. played a Major League Baseball game, in right field, no less, just 292 days after a complete ACL tear. Regardless of what transpired after, that fact remains one of the highlights of the Braves 2022 season.

At home against the Chicago Cubs, Acuña strode to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first to a rousing standing ovation from the home fans. He went 1-5 at the plate with two steals to mark the occasion, giving fans a reason to dream that he might have a comeback season for the ages. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t meant to be.

Contrary to what Acuña himself said at times early in the 2022 season, it was clear his knee was rarely 100 percent healthy throughout the campaign. The trademark power that Acuña had displayed during his young career was relatively non-existent and there really wasn’t that extra burst of speed on the bases (his sprint speed fell to the 82nd percentile after never being lower than 95th). His defense in right field suffered greatly, and overall, it was the statistically worst season for Acuña in just about every facet. Let’s dive in.

We’ll start with Acuña’s lack of power. After posting ISO (Isolated Power) seasons of .331 (2020) and .313 (2021), Acuña’s ISO dipped to .148 in 2022, his lowest of his career by 90 points. While he didn’t barrel up as many balls, with a 12.8 percent barrel rate in 2022 compared to 20.3 percent in 2021, the biggest culprit in his power dip was his launch angle falling from 18.2 degrees in 2021 to 10.8 this past season. Even the most casual Braves fans likely noticed more 6-3 putouts of Acuña than in years past. It wasn’t that Acuña wasn’t hitting the ball hard — he ranked 14th in hard-hit rate and 22nd in MLB in exit velocity per Fangraphs. It was just that everything was hit into the ground. All of that led to a season in which Acuña hit only 15 homers in 533 PAs – an anomaly in an otherwise power-loaded career. The average MLB player turns about a third of their batted balls into easy-to-field grounders; Acuña has generally been an anomaly in that his career rate of these weak, “topped” balls is just 27 percent, and was at 20 percent or below in 2020 and 2021. However, in 2022, he became nearly average in this regard with a 32.3 percent “topped” rate. Combine that with his lowest fly ball rate, his lowest pull rate, and small dips elsewhere, and you have a career-worst season driven by too many balls on the ground.

Acuña made up for some of that lack of power by running more often on the basepaths. He attempted 40 steals, just six fewer attempts than his 37-steal season in 2019; however two-thirds of those attempts came in the first half of the season when the right knee clearly wasn’t as balky. From August-October of the regular season, Acuña attempted just 11 steals and was caught four times. The top-end speed just wasn’t there. According to Baseball Savant’s Statcast data, Acuña ranked no lower than 32nd in all of baseball in sprint speed in an individual season until 2022 when he ranked 105th.

There is not much to be said about Acuña’s defensive season in right, other than it was poor. Especially early on after he returned, it appeared as though something wasn’t right, as Acuña made out-of-character decisions and/or errors. While there was never a problem with his arm (Statcast rated Acuña in the 100th percentile of arm strength in 2022), his Outs Above Average was -5, putting Acuña head of only Juan Soto and Nick Castellanos for players with at least 500 innings logged at the position.

Despite all of the underperformance, Acuña was elected to the MLB All-Star Game for the third time as the National League’s starting RF and participated in the Home Run Derby, falling to Pete Alonso in the first round. He finished the season with a 114 wRC+ and was overall an asset to the Atlanta Braves winning their fifth-straight NL East title. Many major league players would love a season like Acuña had in 2022, but relative to his lofty standards, it was subpar.

As the Braves chased down the Mets over the second half of the season, the need for Acuña to play nearly every day in right field increased. With the added stress, wear and tear the knee became more of an issue as the season progressed. Eventually it got to a point where Acuña was noticeably limping on the bases and rarely running full speed. After sitting for three games in late August, Acuña exclusively DH’d for two weeks in September before until he re-took the field in right for the final three weeks of the regular season.

One of his biggest games of the season came during that final three-week stretch, and gave the Braves and their fans a glimpse of what they had been missing for much of the season. On September 16, the Braves were stymied by a combination of Ranger Suarez and Jose Alvarado, managing just a William Contreras homer through six innings and trailing 2-1. But, after a leadoff walk in the eighth, Acuña took over the game, as he has been known to do.

That homer gave the Braves a 3-2 lead, and after the dust settled on the inning, they had turned it into a 7-2 laugher.

But, there were also rough games. On July 10, in a game the Braves would eventually win 4-3 in extras, Acuña had a brutal day against a weak Nationals pitching staff: he went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and a walk, including this crushing foulout in a situation that was set up for a nice walkoff win:

2023 Outlook

Acuña’s season left Braves Country with a lingering question — how much did the knee injury from 2021 impact the results of his 2022 season? Only Acuña himself knows the answer to that question, but a strong 2023 will silence any doubts about his ability to be an MVP-level talent moving forward.

Already, the offseason has been an eventful one for Acuña. With the Braves’ blessing, he participated in the Venezuelan Winter League, playing for Tiburones de La Guaira. In 10 games, Acuña hit .441 with a 1.160 OPS. and also won the league’s Home Run Derby. In clips that spilled onto social media, it appeared that Acuña was moving around better and was back to playing with his trademark joyous nature, something that was absent often with the Braves.

Manager Brian Snitker and Anthopoulos have both noted this offseason that it will be good for Acuña to have a more normal ramp-up to Spring Training compared to his rehab-filled ’21-’22 offseason.

Steamer projects Acuña’s 2023 season to be better than 2022, but not quite to the levels he was at in 2021 or 2020. It’s important to note that these are only projections, and it’s hard to take into account statistically the context of what occurred in 2022.

Steamer forecasts a point estimate of 682 PAs for Acuña with 31 HR, 81 RBI and 35 stolen bases, totaling 5.4 WAR. An adjustment for playing time made by the Fangraphs Depth Charts knocks that down to 5.1 WAR, which is still a heady number.

However, it’s realistic to think that Acuña could easily return to the level he was at prior to his knee injury. That 2021 season, Acuña was on pace for nearly 50 HR, 35 steals and had already accumulated 4.3 fWAR. A season anywhere close to that from the Braves’ biggest superstar would be a welcome sight for all of Braves Country.

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