Ronald Acuna Jr. Is Poised to Make a Mockery of His $100 Million Megadeal

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 22, 2019

Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. follows the flight of his two-run home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland in the first inning of a baseball game Monday, April 8, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

It's not often a Major League Baseball player signs a nine-figure contract and stirs debate about how much he got underpaid.

Yet such is the case with Ronald Acuna Jr.

The Atlanta Braves signed their star left fielder to an eight-year, $100 million contract extension in early April. By way of team options for 2027 and 2028, the deal would max out at $124 million over 10 years.

From one perspective, these figures are more than fair. As noted by Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors, Acuna's $100 million guarantee is easily the highest ever granted to a player with less than a year of major league service time. Despite having more experience and an All-Star selection to his name, teammate Ozzie Albies got $65 million less in his own contract extension.

From another perspective, the Braves have basically agreed to pay Yu Darvish money to a player who's much younger and far better than Yu Darvish.

Though Acuna is short on experience, he's already long on credentials. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2018, and his stats through 132 career games include 32 home runs, 18 stolen bases, a .934 OPS and 5.6 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

His offensive production deserves extra-special consideration. His .934 OPS translates to a 149 OPS+. As of now, only eight players have ever done better at such a young age with a minimum of 500 plate appearances:

  • Sam Crawford: 167
  • Mike Trout: 166
  • Ted Williams: 161
  • Albert Pujols: 157
  • Jimmie Foxx: 157
  • Rogers Hornsby: 155
  • Stan Musial: 153
  • Ty Cobb: 153

In short, that's two future Hall of Famers (Trout and Pujols) and six actual Hall of Famers. Additionally, Acuna's early OPS+ place him ahead of Mel Ott (146), Eddie Mathews (145), Mickey Mantle (144), Frank Robinson (139) and Ken Griffey Jr. (135).

The greatness Acuna has found thus far should have some lasting power. And lest anyone doubt he truly has the kind of talent to maintain it, well, let's not act like this guy has come out of nowhere.

The Venezuela native went into 2018 ranked as MLB's No. 1 prospect by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. He was billed as a player with plus tools across the board, and his numbers made it all but impossible to argue he didn't deserve the hype.

He went from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A in 2017, improving his production at every stop. He then dominated the Arizona Fall League to the tune of a 1.053 OPS. He kept it up with a 1.247 OPS for the Braves in the 2018 spring season.

Atlanta nonetheless opted to play the service-time game—wherein teams keep players in the minors just long enough to turn six years of club control into seven—and sent Acuna to Triple-A for the start of the 2018 regular season.

Coincidentally or not, that begat some actual hardship. Acuna put up only a .564 OPS at Triple-A before getting the call to the majors on April 25. He then put up a pedestrian .742 OPS through the All-Star break.

The fact Acuna was striking out in 30.4 percent of his plate appearances underscored the difficulty of adjusting to major league pitching. So right around the All-Star break, the Braves got to work.

"Mechanically, we put him in a different stance to try to simplify things," hitting coach Kevin Seitzer told MLB.com's Mark Bowman last September. "All I told him was, 'Get in an athletic position and get your hands back,' because he was late getting his hands back. When he'd go into his leg kick, he'd really fall forward."

Some mechanical changes are subtle. Acuna's weren't. This was him last May at the points where the pitcher came set and released the ball:

Screenshots courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

And this was him in August:

Screenshots courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Acuna moved his hands lower and closed his stance a bit. In doing so, he cut down on the actions he had to take before getting into his actual swing.

Here's how this has worked out for him:

  • Before 2018 All-Star Break: .249 AVG, .304 OBP, .438 SLG
  • Since 2018 All-Star Break: .319 AVG, .409 OBP, .619 SLG

Acuna has gotten his strikeout rate down to a manageable 22.7 percent in the 89 games he's played since the '18 break. Likewise, his walk rate has nearly doubled from 6.5 percent to 11.8 percent.

The quality of Acuna's contact hasn't actually changed that much, but it didn't need to. He's good at keeping the ball off the ground, and his 94.9 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is well above the 2018-19 average of 92.4 mph.

According to Statcast's expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) metric—based on walks, strikeouts and contact quality—Acuna's .413 mark since the 2018 break ranks fourth among qualified hitters. His .431 actual wOBA ranks second, behind only Christian Yelich.

His offensive surge alone would be jet fuel for optimism about his future, but then there's what else he can do. He's also one of baseball's fastest baserunners, and he's already up to four defensive runs saved in the outfield.

Acuna isn't just one of the best young hitters in history; he also deserves consideration as one of MLB's best active players. He's up there with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Yelich.

Alas, Acuna will probably never come into the kind of money such players deserve. The going rate for ultra-elite talent is at least $25 million per year. Assuming the Braves pick up his options, Acuna will average roughly half that ($12.4 million) over the next 10 years. He'd then hit free agency after his age-30 season in 2028, at which point his earning power will be past its peak.

Acuna could have held out until he reached free agency off his age-26 season in 2024. Perhaps he could simply have waited to sign an extension until arbitration eligibility in 2021 gave him some extra bargaining power. In theory, either would have been an avenue to far greater riches.

In practicality, however, it's hard to fault a guy for accepting a $100 million payday so early in his career. And while they're all but certain to get the better end, the Braves do deserve some kudos for their willingness to offer such a deal.

The path of least resistance, in this case, is to ignore the money and focus on the implication that a rare talent has accepted a chance to become an icon for a franchise that's been around since 1876.

Even if there is more to it, that's a cool story.

                      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. 

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