Breakout Breakdown: Ronald Acuña Jr.

Ronald Acuña Jr. won the NL Rookie of the Year on Monday evening. That isn’t much of a surprise, but the fact that he ran away with it was kind of shocking. I didn’t see a major difference between Acuña and Juan Soto and could’ve truly seen the award going either way, so I was a little taken aback when Acuña nabbed 27 of the 30 first-place votes.

It wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Acuña would be a ROY frontrunner this year as he had a .779 OPS in 129 PA before a left ACL sprain shelved him for a month. He took off when he returned, meeting and even exceeding the lofty expectations placed upon super-prospect. His numbers in the 82 games post-injury were probably good enough for the Rookie of the Year on their own and it’s why he has surged into the top 20 of early 2019 drafts.

Acuña put together a blistering .304/.380/.589 line with 21 HR, 51 RBI, 59 R, and 14 SB in 358 PA. Pace those out to a full season and you’re looking at 42-101-117-28. I’m not saying you should pace those numbers as a 2019 expectation, but rather I’m just showing how insane he was over the second half of the season.

All told, he put up a .293/.366/.552 line with 26 HR, 64 RBI, 78 R, and 16 SB in 487 PA, slotting 32nd among hitters on ESPN’s Player Rater and 57th overall in just 111 games. The recently released Steamer projections tabbed Acuña for a .278/.346/.488 with 28 HR, 80 RBI, 94 R, and 25 SB in 665 PA, which doesn’t really have a good 2018 analog, but kinda looks something like Mookie Betts’ 2017:

  • Acuña ’19 Steamer: .278/.346/.488, 28 HR, 80 RBI, 94 R, 25 SB in 665 PA
  • Betts ’17: .264/.344/.459, 24 HR, 102 RBI, 101 R, 26 SB in 712 PA

That season put Betts 15th among hitters and 26th overall on the Player Rater.

The market is absolutely ready to pay for Acuña’s absurd upside. He went at pick 15 on average in the #2EarlyMocks (by the way, I had somebody mention to me that they thought it was just 2 drafts because of that hashtag and I understand that confusion, but it was actually 9 leagues), ranging from pick 7 to 25 with six of the nine leagues sitting between picks 13 and 15. At my AFL draft, he was nabbed at pick 4 by Matt Modica (@ctmbaseball), but we started up the PitchersList mock draft shortly after that and he went 21st to Derek Van Riper so we’re still seeing a decent range, at least in those two data points.

Acuña will be a firm top 15 pick on average come draft season, which puts him in the 1st round of the NFBC Main Event. In fact, I think those leagues are likely to be on the higher end of his range as the overall component encourages reaching for a potential major outlier. I also think Acuña has a solid floor despite entering just his second season and not even being able to legally drink yet.

Acuña put up a brilliant 144 OPS+ (which I’m using over wRC+ because that’s what the Baseball Reference Play Index has available), second to only Mike Trout’s 168 among the nine rookies to log at least 400 PA at 20 years old or younger since 2000. By the way, Soto’s 142 was third. Here’s how the other seven performed in their follow up season:

OPS+ for Rookies Age-20 and Under
Player Rookie Sophomore Diff
Mike Trout 168 179 11
Carlos Correa 135 124 -11
Jason Heyward 131 93 -38
Bryce Harper 118 133 15
Starlin Castro 100 111 11
Rougned Odor 93 107 14
Elvis Andrus 82 72 -10

Only three guys dropped in OPS+ during their sophomore campaign. Andrus wasn’t even good in his rookie year so his drop barely matters here. Correa dropped, but to a very respectable 124. If Acuña fell off to something in the 125-130 range, it really wouldn’t tank his value. He almost certainly wouldn’t be a top 10 player by season’s end (unless he swiped 50+ bases or something), but he’d still be very good. The alarming one is former Brave Jason Heyward. He cratered to a subpar 93 OPS+ and hit just 14 HR with 9 SB in 456 PA, missing almost a month to a shoulder injury.

The risks with Acuña surround his 25% K rate and 21% HR/FB rate, but even if the strikeouts don’t drop and the HR/FB rate does, I don’t think his AVG will tank and added volume will maintain his home run count. A .270 AVG, 45 HR+SB, and 150 R+RBI feels like a reasonable full season downside with a real chance at .290, 60, 200 as his upside. I’m already angling for a late-first round pick this year because I think the top 20 is really deep and Acuña’s likely presence around there makes it even more appealing. An Acuña/elite SP or Acuña/Aaron Judge start to the draft is a great base.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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3 years ago

I would weigh Acuña’s 2nd half more than most players. He made a mechanical swing change that greatly improved his timing and attacked his biggest weakness upper zone fastballs. Im not expecting him to drop a 150 wRC+ next year but a 135ish line might not be out of the norm. Also, Heyward injured his shoulder in early may in 2011 and was never the same for the rest of the season(he had nearly a .900 ops in april and never topped .750 for a month again(Chipper didnt help with his play through pain comments).

3 years ago
Reply to  CousinNicky

I think it’s really interesting how he defied the “Tape Effect.” I wonder if there will be any of that in the second season, where teams find a weakness and he has to adjust. It’s a little far out for it, but I’m also interested to see if he suffers fatigue next year. There’s an overrepresentation of Braves fans in my keeper league, so there’s no chance in hell I can get him (as in: nick markakis will go in the first round next year), but he’ll be one to watch