June 13, 2024

An Analysis of the 2023 Braves Season: Ronald Acuña Jr.

Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. makes baseball history just hours  after getting married in secret ceremony

The National League MVP award was won by an Atlanta Braves player for the second time in four seasons. Ronald Acuña Jr. became one of the few players to win the MVP award while wearing a Braves uniform this time. On a baseball field, you’ve accomplished something amazing if you can join the likes of any conversation involving Freddie Freeman, Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy, and Henry Aaron. That is precisely what Acuña accomplished in 2023, and there are good reasons to think that this is just the start of his career high.

In 2014, Acuña was signed by Atlanta as an international free agent. He didn’t show up to sign with much fanfare (do you recall when Kevin Maitan signed? That was fanfare), but after being given an opportunity to establish himself in the minor leagues, he excelled at every level of play. Acuña was eventually called up as a result in late April 2018. Since then, he has established himself as a regular in both Atlanta’s starting lineup and the outfield.

Acuña signed an eight-year, $100 million contract extension with the Braves about a year after being promoted. The deal keeps him with the team through 2026, with club options for 2027 and 2028 that offer a “just” $17 million annual salary. He started receiving the same $17 million yearly salary last year and will keep getting it until his contract expires.

What did they hope to achieve?
In comparison, Acuña had a difficult season in 2022. Despite being cleared to play following surgery for an ACL tear in the middle of the 2021 season, it was clear from the start of 2022 that his knee wasn’t fully recovered, and it would take some time for him to get back to his previous level of play. Thankfully, Acuña was able to receive competitive reps in the World Baseball Classic and the Venezuelan Winter League thanks to the Braves. We got tinier peeks of the completely recovered and new Acuña in those two competitions.

Expectations skyrocketed as soon as it was evident that Acuña was in good health and eager to start the season. Ozzie Albies effectively summarized the expectations of all parties, including Albies and Michael Harris II, for Acuña in 2023 with a score of 40/40, thanks to the recent rule changes as well as this. He was MVP and fairly upbeat. For Acuña, the stage was essentially set.

More practically speaking, Acuña’s projections differed according to how much you thought his injury history and lackluster 2022 should be factored in. (It’s important to note that even though Acuña recorded 2.2 fWAR in 533 PAs in 2022, his output was significantly suppressed by a significant xwOBA underperformance.) Given his talent and history of dominating production when he wasn’t limited by a recent knee injury, it seemed like a 3 WAR season was a safe bet; however, ZiPS offered a much more optimistic point estimate of 4.5 WAR over 577 PAs.

 

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