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'The Beast' Is Born: 21-Year-Old Ronald Acuna Jr. Is the New King of the ATL

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IAugust 30, 2019

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 03: Ronald Acuna Jr. #13 of the Atlanta Braves celebrates after hitting a walk off run in the 10th inning against the Cincinnati Reds at SunTrust Park on August 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Logan Riely/Getty Images

Ronald Acuna Jr. is in an "I Own The World" mood, and for good reason.

He's just helped beat the Mets with a two-run single that sealed a 9-5 victory and established who's who in the National League East. Any thought of a Mets uprising in the division was effectively squashed during the Braves' sweep at Citi Field last week.

And despite a relatively quiet few days in New York, Acuna showed flashes of what's made him the National League's up-and-coming rock star.

When someone asks Acuna in Spanish "eres una bestia?"—are you a beast?—the 21-year-old slugger throws back his head and enjoys a good laugh.

It all went viral when Acuna's raw emotions exploded after a game-tying 9th-inning home run on Aug. 4 against the Reds. Acuna pounded his chest, tossed the bat high into the air and emphatically declared "Yo soy la bestia"—translated as "I am the beast" in English.

It sparked a T-shirt and became a mini rallying cry for Atlanta baseball.

Atlanta Braves @Braves

brb gonna watch this on repeat for a few days https://t.co/HalnWpJUmR

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Of course Acuna is a beast, which he's been playfully calling himself since spring training. He's a young line-drive machine with speed and power, which actually puts him in cyborg territory. Or as teammate Freddie Freeman matter-of-factly says: "Ronald has a chance to be the best player in the game. He's already on the way. I mean, I'm in the dugout watching him and I feel like a fan. He's that good."

Acuna is already the second-youngest player to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. Only Mike Trout did so at a younger age. As for the 40-40 club, Acuna is only four HRs and nine swipes shy.

An informal poll in the Braves clubhouse yields a universal thumbs-up: Just like Freeman, the veterans all believe Acuna's career is headed in one direction—straight up—with no red flags.

Teammates say Acuna has the skills to be the next Trout, but more importantly, he's mature enough to handle the fame and, yes, the money.

Acuna signed an eight-year, $100 million contract in April with options that potentially boost its worth to $124 million. The average annual salary is relatively low for a player with Acuna's upside, but he's richer than anyone in MLB history with less than one year of service time.

Tami Chappell/Associated Press

It was clearly a risk on the Braves' part, but every department green-lighted the deal, including the advanced analytics crew, the mental conditioning coordinators and sports psychologists and the on-field personnel, including manager Brian Snitker.

"If you're asking me if Ronald can handle all this, my answer is yes. He's actually the last guy I would worry about in this position," Snitker said. "He has so much talent, it's almost mind-boggling, but none of it has gone to his head. That's what makes him special."

Acuna, a native of Venezuela, is remarkably easy-going, at ease in the clubhouse even though he is separated from his English-speaking teammates by the language barrier.

"I'm learning, I'm practicing," he said of his English skills. "I try to talk to the guys here as much as I can. I make mistakes, but it's the only way to learn."

Interviewed by Spanish-speaking reporters and TV crews, Acuna is boisterous, spontaneous—his personality is as large as the clubhouse itself. With the American media, Acuna relies on a translator, Franco Garcia, and is somewhat more reserved. He seems to be more comfortable withdrawing to his cellphone. That isn't an indictment; it's just a reminder that Acuna is still a college-aged kid.

But regardless of who he's speaking to, Acuna conveys the same message of humility and gratitude.

"Every day I give thanks for the opportunity I've been given," he said. "I thank God, I thank my family, my teammates. I try to honor the people who've helped me get here."

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 01: Centerfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. #13 of the Atlanta Braves celebrates with first base coach Eric Young, Sr. #2 after hitting an RBI single in the fifth inning during the game against the Detroit Tigers at SunTrust Park on June 0
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The supporting cast includes his father, Ronald Sr., who played for eight years (1999-2006) in the minor leagues as an outfielder. Acuna's cousins went even further. Right-hander Kelvim Escobar won 101 games with the Blue Jays and Angels, and Alcides Escobar, who was part of the Royals' 2015 world championship team, enjoyed considerable success in the majors. Two other Escobars, Edwin and Jose, also made it to The Show.

It's no wonder that Acuna looks so comfortable on the diamond. He was practically born on it.

"This is his playground," Snitker said. "I don't think I've seen Ronald nervous in a game, no matter how big the situation is. That's saying a lot for a 21-year-old."

There have been moments when Acuna has displayed his youth, though—and not just with his cellphone.

Earlier this month against the Dodgers, Snitker benched him for failing to run out what he thought was a home run. It instead turned out to be a long, embarrassing single. A half-inning later, Adam Duvall replaced Acuna in the field.

Snitker later admonished Acuna through the press, telling reporters: "It's not going to be acceptable here. ... You just can't let your team down like that."

Acuna accepted the punishment and openly apologized.

"There was no excuse for it," he said.

In the clubhouse, veterans took note of Acuna's response, watching for a postgame tantrum. There was none. Acuna seemed genuinely chastened.

"We have a good group of older guys in here that Ronald can learn from," Braves outfielder Nick Markakis said. "He's young, he's going to make mistakes like that, he's going to have slumps. That's where the veterans come in. Every good team has a good clubhouse."

Such missteps have been few and far between, and Acuna hears the growing comparisons to Trout, who he says, "I respect very much." But if there's one slugger Acuna models himself after, it's fellow countryman Miguel Cabrera, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of this generation and a hero to Venezuelans.

Tami Chappell/Associated Press

"That's who I want to be, that's the kind of hitter I want to become," Acuna said.

In his prime, Cabrera was a deadly combination of power and high-average, high-contact efficiency. Pitchers dreaded facing the Tigers slugger in high-leverage situations. Cabrera handled hard-throwers and finesse artists with the same, maddening ease. He could drive missiles into the gaps whenever he felt like it.

Acuna hasn't reached Cabrera's skill level yet. He's leading the National League in strikeouts (156) and whiffs once every 3.5 at-bats on average. But talent evaluators say he doesn't have that far to go.

"Acuna's plate coverage is improving," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "He can get any pitch in the air with authority."

Acuna admits he needs to be more disciplined. Tempting him with breaking pitches out of the zone is one of the ways opponents are trying to neutralize his power.

"I've noticed the league has adjusted to me," Acuna said. "Now it's up to me to make the next adjustment. That's how you succeed in baseball."

The ability to adapt in real time is the mark of a gifted player, regardless of age.

"I'm sure people were wondering how Ronald would handle success, if he'd have a sophomore slump," Braves pitcher Dallas Keuchel said.

He then shook his head.

"Obviously, there's been no slump. That's been the most impressive feature. There doesn't seem like that's much that can stop this kid."

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