FOX Sports MLB Analyst
When he returned last season from the torn ACL that cost him more than 90 major league games, Ronald Acuña Jr. he looked merely competent, nowhere near the superstar he had been for the first four years of his career.
It’s only been a week, but Acuña looks like a star again. He has been a force at the top Atlanta Braves‘lineup during his 6-1 start to 2023. He’s put the ball in play and hit for power. He has waited for walks. He has stolen bases. He has sprinted for the bases after his teammates’ hits. He has played a good right field, with two assists already. He’s obviously back to the player he was, the player who was on pace for a 40-30 season before the knee injury.
Acuña is only 25 years old. It’s no wonder he’s back on board. But its 2022 return represented enough of a regression to cause some concern in the industry. Last year he didn’t stand out at all. His defense rated below replacement. He led the National League in steals. It came into contact at the same speed as in the past, but was consistently less powerful. According to FanGraphs.com, his ground ball and infield fly rates increased by more than 50%.
There was enough contact, and enough retained patience, power and speed, that Acuña remained an above-average player overall in 2022. But his fall wasn’t what the Braves envisioned for their 100-man million dollars, and forced them to pursue. the Mets at the end of the season to secure a National League East title.
The Braves have beefed up their offense over the past two years, so much so that many in the sport believed they could struggle in 2023 without an elite Acuña. While injured, third baseman Austin Riley, now 26, became another true superstar, and Atlanta quickly responded by extending him to a contract worth more than double Acuña’s. Center fielder Michael Harris II also made his debut in that time and earned an extension that would match Acuña’s if his team options are exercised. First baseman Matt Olson and catcher Sean Murphy have also arrived from Oakland in the 21 months since Acuña tore his knee. There was support.
But this year’s Grapefruit League play hinted that Acuña has rediscovered the vibrancy his game lacked last year, and the World Baseball Classic provided further confirmation. Acuña also began telling reporters last month that he felt “100 percent” better than he did a year ago. Lately, he’s said that the same swings that produced outs last year are now producing extra-base hits. Now, the Braves have all of the aforementioned contributors i one of the most talented players in the sport. Their starting trio of Acuña, Olson and Riley rivals anyone in baseball.
Start with Acuña. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters this week that the right fielder is in a “good place.”
“That kid loves having his legs under him, I assure you,” Snitker said. “Play the game the way he wants to. I’m happy for him, that he can use all his tools and his skills. You know, he plays the game the way he’s used to playing it, which is full.”
It’s natural for players recovering from major injuries to come back a little less than themselves at first. Perhaps Acuña, however, is simply unsuited to playing with less than 100 percent of his inherent athleticism. Teammates describe his hitting approach as more free-flowing than most, with more natural movement than most of them can handle. He seems to have returned to that style, throughout his game. If this continues, the Braves may never relinquish the lead they’ve already jumped to in the NL East.
The Mets have the top-end rotation talent and offensive depth. The Phillies have last year’s momentum and some stars. But none of those teams can match the Braves’ combination of talent and depth. They were good enough to win the World Series without him two years ago and were contenders last year, without Acuña at his peak. Now, it looks like they have the elite version of him back.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and LA Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Overcome a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter at @pedromoura.
Get more from Major League Baseball Follow your favorites for information on games, news and more