Ronald Acuna was not a poor performer last season, but he wasn't quite his MVP-level self.
He was returning from an ACL tear in his right knee that limited him to 116 games in which he posted a career-low 114 wRC+. Yes, he was still 14% better than the league-average hitter, but he wasn't Acuna.
The Atlanta Braves' franchise cornerstone appears to be back to 100% this season.
On Monday, he launched a towering home run into the third deck at Citi Field, a place where very few baseballs have landed. Only Pete Alonso, Yoenis Cespedes, and Aaron Judge have also reached that rarified real estate.
His skills are looking more like they did before the knee injury, with the added gain of cutting his strikeout rate by nine percentage points.
Last year his swing flattened, he had less power, resulting in a 2-mph decline in average exit velocity. There was also a decline in his fly-ball rate.
This year, he is enjoying the greatest average exit velocity of his career (95.5 mph), which ranks second in baseball, trailing only the Blue Jays' Matt Chapman. Acuna's 4.0-mph improvement ranks as the 11th-greatest jump among hitters with at least 80 plate appearances this season.
His MVP-level form is a reminder that players are not often at 100% when they return from a serious injury. And at 25, Acuna might still have another level to reach.
"I'd say the only difference is last year I had to battle with some pain in the knee … it comes with recovering from that type of injury," Acuna told theScore via an interpreter late this spring. "Just being able to practice, and train at 100%, without any restrictions, was (important)."
Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said that without Acuna having his lower body at 100%, it sapped his power last season.
"(This spring) his swing looks like it did before," Seitzer said. "Last year, we were trying to make adjustments with his swing … but his power, his hand speed, comes from his lower half. And it was his right knee, so he didn't have that explosive backside that he's had that made him Ronald Acuna.
"When hitters start to compensate with their upper body, they lose the bat speed, things flatten out, or you get steep, you get long."