The Atlanta Braves are still in the relatively early stages of the marathon-like regular season but one thing is already becoming abundantly clear at this point in the campaign: Ronald Acuña Jr. is back. He's all the way back. He's back like it's A Dinosaur's Story and it's 1993. He has looked absolutely incredible to start off this season and it's looking like he's picking up exactly where he left off before he suffered that nasty knee injury in 2021.
In case you may have missed it, I'll break things down for you. Ronald Acuña Jr.'s currently hitting .285/.383/.613, which has been good for a wRC+ of 157, a wOBA of .412 and an Isolated Power number of .328. He's walking at a pace of around 12 percent while only striking out 17 percent of the time and he's already gotten off to a decent start when it comes to the Home Run/Stolen Base tracker — he's racked up 12 homers and is currently sitting on a decent number of six stolen bases. That's not to mention the fact that he's been playing some great defense as well, and it really seems like we're starting to see Acuña realize his true potential as superstar in Major League Baseball.
Now if you've read that and you're wondering "Oh haha, I caught him! This idiot has the numbers completely wrong!” then I guess it's time to inform you that I spent the previous paragraph telling you a lie. Those are his stats from his first 162 plate appearances in 2021. I apologize for feeding you some cap just now. Here's what he's actually done through 160 plate appearances in 2023: A .338/.431/.551 slash line, a 164 wRC+, a .422 wOBA, .213 in Isolated Power, a 13 percent walk rate, a 14 percent strikeout rate and he's got six homers and 15 stolen bases (including this gem) already. While his current Outs Above Average metric suggests that his defense has been the last thing to return from injury, I think we all can see that he's still just as capable of changing games with his arm and glove as he is with his bat and legs.
While his offensive numbers might be a little inflated due to a high BABIP of .370, it's not really a stretch to think that he won't be able to keep up the level of production. He's always managed to keep his BABIP pretty high and it also helps that a ton of the balls that he puts in play are usually rockets. Again, his Statcast peripherals have me believing that everything he's doing is pretty sustainable — after all, they're extremely similar to what he was doing in 2021 before his season was cut short.
Aside from the numbers, it's just been incredibly fun to watch Ronald Acuña Jr. operating at full strength once again. While it was nice to see Acuña back in action once he returned from injury in 2022, it was still frustrating since it was pretty obvious that he was still recovering from the injury despite being healthy enough to play. We definitely still got flashes of the dynamo that we were all used to seeing but they were just that: Flashes. Instead, he's taken advantage of having an offseason focused on simply getting ready for this campaign and from the World Baseball Classic in March to making laser beam throws from right field to third base for the Braves in May, it's clear that the old Acuña is back and it has been a treat to watch this man tear it up out there.
Even at this early point, there are two obvious questions going forward for Ronald Acuña Jr.: Can he win the National League MVP award and can he join the 40/40 Club? When it comes to MVP, I'd say that he's already raced to the front of the pack when it comes to that race. While it's still extremely early to start really stumping for Acuña to win MVP, when you compare what he's done so far when compared to the other preseason favorites then it's pretty easy to see that he's currently in his own stratosphere.
The only player in the National League who you could seriously argue has been better than Acuña so far this season is his teammate, Sean Murphy. Other than that, Ronald Acuña Jr. has blasted out of the gates and the fact that he's been on this pace before seems to indicate that he's got what it takes to keep it going.
As far as the 40/40 Club goes, it's fun to go back and compare where Ronald Acuña Jr. is at right now when compared to where other 40/40 Club members were at at the same point during their incredible seasons. José Canseco had nine homers and 12 stolen bases through 164 plate appearances in 1988, Barry Bonds was already in double digits in both categories by that point in 1996 when he had 17 homers and 10 stolen bases, Alex Rodriguez was sitting on 11 home runs and five stolen bases through just over 160 plate appearances two years later in 1998 and Alfonso Soriano had smacked 11 homers and stolen six bases through 163 plate appearances in 2006. While we're at it, Ronald Acuña Jr. had eight homers and two stolen bases through 161 plate appearances during his 2019 season where he ended up with 41 homers and 37 stolen bases.
While Acuña has definitely got some ground to make up when it comes to the home run stroke, it's looking like he's going to zoom past the mark of 40 stolen bases as long as he stays healthy. As far as dingers go, the only way that's going to change is if he can get his fly ball rate at least back in the mid-30 percent range. Right now he's still hitting a ton of ground balls — to the tune of over 50 percent of his batted balls. That's even higher than when he hit 47.7 percent of his batted balls on the ground last season. It's still pretty early so he could correct that and get back to hitting liners and fly balls again and it's got to happen if he's going to smack 40 dingers this season. His contact is still very hard but if he can get back to lifting the ball in the air then he is going to be incredibly dangerous to deal with at the plate going forward.
Simply put, this start to 2023 from Ronald Acuña Jr. has been extremely encouraging to watch. If there were any doubts about Acuña being able to return to the level that he was at before his knee injury, then he's already managed to dispel them and has returned to being the World Class baseball player that he was clearly developing into. We got a taste of this in 2021 and as long as he can continue to stay healthy then we're about to get a full helping of what Ronald Acuña Jr. is like at the peak of his powers. I genuinely can't wait to see just how high he can raise the bar for this upcoming season.