In baseball the phrase “hope springs eternal” is often overused, as MLB’s 30 teams enter each season with a wink and a prayer at a majestic playoff run. Some squads are set up better than others with regard to actually competing in a particular season, though, and the Atlanta Braves were not supposed to make a run in 2018.
The Braves, like many organizations around the league, have been in the midst of a full-blown rebuild in recent years, winning 67, 68, and 72 games in successive seasons. Atlanta garnered praise for their tear-down, largely due to an elite-level farm system, but 2018 was seemingly scheduled to be a building year with a mild step forward, with most projections in the mid-to-high 70’s in terms of season win total.
Then, things got weird, with the Braves posting a 12-10 record in the early part of April and looking the part of a potential contender in the NL East. Atlanta was able to compile that modest, yet impressive record, without the services of uber-elite prospect Ronald Acuña, who began the season in triple-A Gwinnett for reasons seemingly centering on service time concerns.
Acuña finally arrived on Apr. 25 and, on cue, the Braves improved in stark fashion. In his first 29 games, it was clear that Acuña was in the majors to stay though, to be fair, the 21-year-old produced solidly but without too many flashes of brilliance. A trip to the disabled list for about a month would presumably slow down the positive mojo to some degree as well.
Instead, the opposite was true. Acuña returned from his injury-related absence on June 29 and became one of the top five hitters in all of baseball. In 82 post-DL games, he blasted 21 home runs with a slash line of .304/.380/.589 and, if that wasn’t impressive enough, Acuña really lifted off after the All-Star break.
It’s an arbitrary endpoint, but it happens to be a beautiful one for the rising star. After the brief hiatus, he posted a 171 wRC+ (an elite figure) in 68 games, putting together a .322/.403/.625 slash line with 19 home runs and 15 doubles in only 303 plate appearances. Undeniably, that was the push that paved the way for Acuña to win the National League Rookie of the Year award but, unlike some who claim that particular piece of hardware, Acuña seems destined for bigger and better things.