For the second-straight day, Ronald Acuna Jr. homered, when he pulled a bomb over the left-center wall on Monday in the Braves 5-1 win over the Twins.
His three homers in four days gives RAJ three dingers overall for this spring as the 23-year-old outfielder is starting to heat up at the plate. During this most recent four-game span (March 11-14), Acuña is 4 for his last 10 (.400 AVG) with four RBI, inching his underwhelming Spring Training slash-line up to .208/.269/.625 in 14 games. With 14 exhibition games down and 14 to go, the former NL Rookie of the Year (2018) has just enough time to get his bat fully going for the 2021 regular season.
So with that in mind, and the fact that he turned 23 this past December, I decided to look at the Braves all-time best seasons for a 23-year-old, dating all the way back to 1920 (the Live Ball Era). If there’s any current Atlanta player capable of posting a record campaign in 2021, it’s certainly Acuña.
Here are the top-five seasons, ordered by bWAR, by a 23-year-old Brave:
1) 2000, Andrew Jones, OF — 8.2 WAR
(161 G, .303 AVG, 36 HR, 104 RBI, 21 SB)
2) 1957, Henry Aaron, OF — 8.0 WAR
(151 G, .322 AVG, 44 HR, 132 RBI, 118 R)
3) 1955, Eddie Mathews, 3B — 7.3 WAR
(141 G, .289 AVG, 41 HR, 101 RBI, 109 BB)
4) 1964, Denis Menke, SS — 6.7 WAR
(151 G, .283 AVG, 20 HR, 65 RBI)
5) 2013, Andrelton Simmons, SS — 5.8 WAR
(157 G, .248 AVG, 17 HR, 59 RBI, 6 SB)
Nos. 6-10 featured 1964’s Joe Torre (5.5 WAR), 2013’s Freddie Freeman (5.3), 1972’s Dusty Baker (5.1) as well as 1940’s Eddie Miller (4.8) and Chet Ross (3.8). The next five (nos. 11-15) include a few other notable players from this generation in Jason Heyward (3.6), Jeff Francoeur (3.3) and Chipper Jones (2.7).
Acuna’s chances at history
First of all, I’ll go ahead and say that I wholeheartedly believe RAJ has pretty solid odds to at least put himself within the top 5 of the Braves all-time list for best age-23 performances. Hell, in 2019 — his age-21 campaign — Acuña was worth 5.7 WAR, which would’ve put him immediately behind Andrelton Simmons at no. 6 all-time among 23-year-olds. That year, RAJ did it all, coming within three stolen bases of a 40/40 season on his way to an All-Star selection and fifth-place finish in the NL MVP vote.
Combine 2019 with his 4.2-WAR rookie year in 2018, and Acuña’s 9.9 WAR in those two seasons alone is the most ever by a 21-or-under Braves player with 1,200 or fewer plate appearances. Disregard plate appearances, and RAJ’s 2018-19 WAR total ranks third all-time among 21-and-under Braves, behind Eddie Mathews (10.5 WAR) and Andruw Jones (10.9).
If it wasn’t for the 2020 season being shortened by more than 60%, Acuña could be in some unheard of territory when it comes to WAR.
If we simply go by what ZiPS projected Acuña to do in a full 2020 campaign (695 PA, .286 AVG, 39 homers, 104 RBI, 5.1 fWAR), his combined WAR total for his age-20 thru 22 seasons could potentially be a whopping 15 WAR in 1,897 PA, a three-year WAR total that would rank third-best all-time in Braves history among 22-and-under players (also behind Mathews and Jones).
So as you can see, Acuña is certainly capable of producing a lot of WAR in a short period of time.
However, if I’m RAJ or the Braves, I’m definitely not worried about something as arbitrary as posting the best age-23 season in franchise history. No, the top priority is simply playing well and helping lead the Braves to their fourth-straight division title, as well as a World Series, the latter of which hasn’t happened for Atlanta since 1999 (when Acuña was just 2-years-old).
Regardless, after starting Spring Training with a 1 for 14 skid that featured five strikeouts in his first five games, it’s great to see one of the team’s most important contributors beginning to heat up. If enough of the Braves lineup can follow suit over the next couple of weeks, this will once again be an elite offense and an area of the team that could carry Atlanta to a level it hasn’t reached in over 20 years.
Acuña has been like no other for the Braves from age 20-22, and we’ll just have to wait and see what he’ll accomplish in 2021 as a 23-year-old. My guess is that we’ll continue to be impressed.