He’s 25 years old and in his sixth season as a starting outfielder for the Atlanta Braves. Despite being a four-time All-Star, a former National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time Silver Slugger - and currently the front-runner for this year’s National League Most Valuable Player award - Ronald Acuña, Jr. has only played in 120 or more games in a season once in his career.
Hopefully, that changes this season, not only for him but for this generation of baseball fans who should get the opportunity to see the all-around excellence of maybe the most electrifying player in the National League - and right there in the conversation for the best player in all of baseball.
Through August 6, 2023, Acuña, Jr.’s 162-game average points to the peak possibility of his career: 182 hits, 128 runs, 34 doubles, 38 home runs, 94 runs batted in, 41 stolen bases and a 138 OPS+.
Here’s the concerning “but” to those numbers above. He’s only come close to putting up those numbers one time in his career - 2019 - when he played in 156 games, finished 5th in the NL MVP voting, won his first Silver Slugger and led the NL in plate appearances, runs and stolen bases while finishing three steals short of having a 40/40 season as he pounded 41 home runs while slashing .280/.365/.518.
He was on his way to repeating his 2019 success in 2021 when a knee injury ended his season in its 82nd game. He played in 119 games last season, coming back from the injury, but wasn’t his full self.
Throw in playing in only 46 games during the COVID-shortened 2021 season, injuries and the pandemic robbed him - and us - of 249 games during his age 22-24 seasons. Because of that, he averaged playing in only 103 per year heading into 2023.
That’s 1.5 seasons. Think about that for a minute, without injuries or the pandemic, at his 162 game averages, that’d be roughly another 60 home runs and stolen bases, which means he’s have approximately 200 career home runs and stolen bases BEFORE HE TURNED 26 YEARS OLD.
Those would have been numbers that would have exceeded Mike Trout’s comparable years. That’s projectable inner-circle Hall of Fame territory.
But that isn’t reality.
Instead, we’ve seen one full season of peak Acuña, Jr. plus this season - which hopefully will be the second complete campaign of his career. And what a year 2023 is turning out to be for him.
One by-product of the performance Acuña, Jr. has displayed this season is the outpouring a lot of middle-age and older baseball fans and writers have made comparing - and lamenting - the similarities between Acuña, Jr. career and that of long-time Atlanta rival Eric Davis.
If you were old enough to remember watching peak Eric Davis on TBS or WGN or the Game of the Week, you’ve probably made the comparison between Davis and Acuña, Jr. at least a dozen times this season. Davis was dynamic - especially during his five-year peak with the Cincinatti Reds from 1986 through 1990.
During that five-year run (his age 24 through 28 seasons), Davis averaged 30 home runs, 41 stolen bases, 91 runs and 90 runs batted in, while sporting a 143 OPS+. That included a 7+ fWAR season in 1987 despite playing in only 129 games.
You might look at those numbers and thing, “Okay, I get the power/speed combination but Acuña, Jr. put up better 162-game seasons based on what you wrote above.”
Yeah, you’re almost right.
The difference is that Davis’s numbers referenced above are not his 162-game averages. They are his actual numbers because he averaged playing in only 131 games - and never played in more than 135 games during that stretch.
Sadly, despite playing in 17 seasons, he never played in more than 135 games in a year - and missed the entire 1995 season - because of injuries or illness.
If you look at Davis’s five-year peak based on his 162-game averages, his numbers paint a brighter picture: 113 runs, 37 home runs, 51 stolen bases, 112 runs batted in.
That is why so many people bring up “Eric the Red” when talking about the season that Acuña, Jr. is having this year.
Davis played during the artificial turf era when roaming the outfield basically meant standing, running, jumping and diving directly on concrete. During the 1990 World Series, Davis rolled over his glove diving to make a catch in the outfield and suffered a lacerated kidney which required surgery and marred his production the following season.
From 1991 to 2001, his final season in MLB at age 39, Davis only played in an average of 87 games - and that excludes his missed 1995 season. In May 1997, Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer and missed most of the season before returning in September.
Davis’s freak athleticism was still there - despite his battle with cancer - as seen by the results of his 1998 season in Baltimore, when he played in 131 games and slugged 28 home runs and had a career-high 151 OPS+ after slashing .327/.388/.582.
For his career, Davis only collected 1,430 hits with 282 home runs and 349 stolen bases while posting 34.9 fWAR. If those numbers alone were all you knew about Davis, you wouldn’t know that he is one of the most common names that comes up with people hypothetically ponder what might have been if a player could have only stayed healthy.
During his career he played in less than 100 games per season - and goes down further to only 90 games when you factor in his missed season.
Talk about wishing on a star - if he had played in 50-percent more games during his career (135 games), we’ve be looking at a player with career totals of 423 home runs and 523 stolen bases. Even if you assume he’s stolen base production would have decreased as he aged, a 400/400 career for Davis could have been a real thing.
As for being a rival of the Braves, before Divisional realignment in 1994, Davis played for the Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers in all but 23 of the games he played in the Majors from 1984 through 1993.
For his career, he tormented the Braves in 126 career games with a .902 OPS and 25 home runs and 35 stolen bases.
Davis isn’t the only rival that is worth a mentioning when discussing Acuña, Jr.’s 2023 season. If you were born during the ‘90s - or maybe even the early ‘00’s - you may recall the exploits of Hanley Ramirez.
Ramirez didn’t struggle with injuries to the same extent as Davis did, but during his peak five years with the Florida Marlins (his age 22 through 26 seasons) from 2006 through 2010, Ramirez posted a 136 OPS+ while playing in an average of 152 games and producing 187 hits, 112 runs, 40 doubles, 25 home runs and 39 stolen bases. Feel free to tweak those numbers up by about 9-percent if you want to think about his 162-game averages.
Honestly, it’s easy to forget how good Ramirez was during his prime. as he was a three-time All-Star, the National League Rookie of the Year, won two Silver Slugger awards and finished runner-up for the 2009 NL MVP award. Although he was a shortstop and not an outfielder like Acuña, Jr. and Davis, his offensive production and accolades match-up closely with Acuña, Jr.
After 2010, Ramirez only played in 147 or more games twice - in 2012 and 2016 - before ending his career in 2019 with Cleveland despite being only 35 years old. During his last nine seasons, he averaged only 112 games but was still an above average hitter with a 114 OPS+. For his career he put-up 41.4 fWAR, peaking with 7+ fWAR seasons in both 2008 and 2009.
Ramirez only had one 30/30 season, in 2008 when he hit 33 home runs and stole 35 bases, but he just missed in 2007 when he hit 29 home runs and stole 51 bases, the second of back-to-back seasons with 51 steals. In his career, he went 20/20 five times.
He finished his time in the big leagues with 1,824 hits, 1,049 runs, 917 runs batted in, 271 home runs and 281 stolen bases yielding a career 124 OPS+.
Like Davis, he spent his peak as a Division foe to Atlanta while with Florida, playing in 114 games in his career against Atlanta - with all but 21 of those games with the Marlins from 2006 through 2010.
There are other players from the generation preceding Acuña, Jr.’s era that are worth giving a nod to, although their peak may not have been what Acuña, Jr.’s could be. That includes outfielders Grady Sizemore, Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron.
Although not a division foe, the high-water mark for power-and-speed comparison in the last 20 years is with Alfonso Soriano. Although he did not win a Rookie of the Year or MVP award, he was a seven-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger, whose peak from 2002 through 2008 saw him join the 40/40 club in 2006 and only miss that same accomplishment by one home run in 2002.
Nine times in Soriano’s career he was in the 18/18 club - a bit arbitrary on the surface - but three times in his career his “18” was paired with 29 or more of the other.
Soriano averaged 145 games during his All-Star seasons with 102 runs, 175 hits, 39 doubles, 36 home runs, 90 runs batted in and 29 stolen bases with a 120 OPS+. His averages would have been higher if not for his 2008 campaign with the Cubs that saw him play in only 109 games.
Soriano stayed healthy throughout his career playing in less than 135 games only twice after becoming a full-time starter in 2001 - and excluding his final season in 2014 at age 38.
Soriano’s career accomplishments are probably worth a deeper dive given he was only on the Hall of Fame ballot for a one year. Granted, his peak game during an offensive era and he didn’t walk a lot - thus a career OPS+ of only 112 - but he finished his career with 2,095 hits, 481 doubles, 412 home runs, 1,152 runs scored, 1,159 runs batted in and 289 stolen bases with a triple-slash of .270/.319/.500. It is also worth considering he didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 25 years old.
The patience Acuña, Jr. has shown at the plate in his career - and something he had paired with a Chipper Jones-esque strikeout-to-walk ratio this season - is one of the reasons his career OPS is 100-points higher than was Soriano’s OPS. But otherwise, the power/speed comparison between the two players is striking.
From two baseball generation ago, there are two other legendary names whose peak Acuña, Jr. could look to scale with a few more healthy seasons at production levels similar to this season: Darryl Strawberry and Jose Canseco.
Strawberry, who was also a Rookie of the Year in the NL, was an All-Star from 1984 through 1991, won two Silver Slugger awards and finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting four times.
During that eight-year stretch, “Straw” averaged 141 games, with 131 hits, 24 doubles, 32 home runs, 95 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases good for a 145 OPS+. He also narrowly missed a 40/40 season in 1987 when he homered 39 times and swiped 36 bases.
Drug abuse issues and injuries prevented Strawberry having what looked to be a Hall of Fame career as he played in 64 games or more only once in the last eight seasons of his career.
Canseco, an AL Rookie of the Year winner, also had what seemed to be a Hall of Fame trajectory early in his career as he was an All-Star five times, won three Silver Slugger awards, and won the 1988 AL MVP award.
In his peak stretch from 1986 through 1992, Canseco averaged 135 games, with 85 runs, 135 hits, 24 doubles, 33 home runs and 18 stolen bases good for a 140 OPS+. That doesn’t tell the whole story as Canseco became the first player to have a 40/40 season in 1988 when he stole 40 bases and hit 42 home runs.
Canseco’s career floundered after his peak, although he still productive, he only played in more than 113 games twice with one of those seasons being 151 games for Toronto in 1998.
There are plenty of other names that could be brought up in discussions with Acuña, Jr.’s success - including that of Braves legend and should-be Hall of Famer Dale Murphy.
Murphy joined the 30/30 club in 1983 - the second of his back-to-back NL MVP seasons - although the 30 steals he had that season was his career high.
During his eight-year peak from 1980 through 1987, Murphy averaged 153 games, 100 runs, 161 hits, 26 doubles, 33 home runs, 96 runs batted in and 16 stolen bases with a 140 OPS+. Those numbers include the strike-shortened 1981 season in which he played in only 104 games.
Despite the accolades of those legends, Acuña, Jr. is on his way to besting them. With more than 50 games to play this season, this may be the season of his career that generations of baseball fans talk about for decades to come.
As Immaculate Grid has highlighted, one of the best things about baseball is the fantastic seasons from players of prior generations that have been overlooked or forgotten through the passage of time.
Like the exploits of the Braves old National League West rival Eric Davis, Acuña, Jr.’s outstanding year has made it fun to remember and bring to light how sensational some of these names from the past were.
That is yet another reason to appreciate the brilliance of Ronald Acuña, Jr. this season.