Can Acuna improve even more in 2024? Here, we explain that yes

Simply put, you probably won’t believe that Venezuela’s Ronald Acuña Jr. could have a better season in 2024 than he did in 2023, after all, after posting 40-70 points in the first half and earning the unanimous National League Most Valuable Player. Won the award. Campaign in history. And while the last part was obviously made easier by the new rules, it’s still 40-70.

What could be better than that?

It’s not exactly reasonable to expect more, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility either. Typically, when we see players have the best years of their careers, it’s usually because A) they were buoyed by a wave of good fortune at the time, or B) they were very frustrated. So common that it is impossible to replicate, or c) is at an age when the player’s best days are likely past.

But a) it is not so; This is quite the opposite. B) This is also not true, because although Acuña had an undoubtedly excellent year; It was really just a steal that was inconsistent with his previous performance. YC) Well, he turned 26 in December.

All of which means it’s hard not to wonder if 2023 was just one of many great years, and not just the best year of his career. In any case, at least you can have more in the tank. How was this possible?

1) He did not benefit from good fortune. Maybe the opposite.

What we mean by “luck and potentially overachieve” can be seen in the case of Cody Bellinger, who had a solid season on the surface (.307/.356/.525, a 133 OPS+), but Many questions arise regarding this. Durability and repeatability, given his below-average hard-hit rate as well as other factors.

There are no questions for Acuna, who probably should have received more than he did last year. Acuña posted a .428 wOBA last year, which was second only to Shohei Ohtani. (It’s like on-base percentage, if it considered extra-base hits more valuable than singles.) But his expected wOBA based on the Statcast estimate from contact quality was actually .460, meaning he Decreased by 32 points. This is the third-highest negative differential of any qualified hitter. If you prefer batting average, it’s the same idea: He hit .337, but posted an expected PRO of .357 based on the quality of his contact.

(By comparison, Mookie Betts hit about what he deserved; he posted a .416 wOBA with a .407 expected wOBA, meaning there was probably no good or bad luck. You can also look at Acuña’s teammate Austin Riley in Atlanta. The same can be said about Bellinger, who had a wOBA of .363 and an expected wOBA of .365. On the other hand, Bellinger’s actual mark of .370 was much higher than his expected mark of .327, which may partially explain why he Why the contract was not found at this point).

Obviously this doesn’t always mean “bad luck.” Sometimes you hit a ball into the gutter at 118 mph and see the outfielder be in the right place at the right time.

Sometimes, one of the best defensive outfielders of the 21st century shows you why he’s earned that label.

And sometimes, you hit a ball that came from 27 other ballparks except that day… and to top it all, you hit it so hard and toward one of the best defensive left fielders ever. The game you end with only one single.

Whether this is “bad luck” or “it’s just baseball” depends on each person’s opinion, as it has long been popular to say that “everything will even out at the end of the season” and this is not always true. . What is true, however, is that 31 times last year, Acuña hit a hit—that is, a batted ball with the right combination of speed and launch angle—with an average above .500 and slugging above .1,500. – and was out. , This was not only the largest amount in 2023; This was the most hits in any year since Statcast began in 2015.

Nine times in 2023, he hit a ball more than 390 feet that was either an out or a single, the most in baseball. (For context, balls hit 390 feet or higher prove to be extra-base hits more than 85% of the time.)

Now, does this guarantee that you will get better results in 2024? No, not at all, and it’s not like he never got any benefit from a weak hit balloon. Some of those 390-foot or longer drives would have been out of the park if he hit them toward the foul zone instead of sending them to center field, like when he hit this one at Colorado that went 416 feet and still One became outside.

But as impressive as Acuña’s 1.012 OPS was, it’s not as impressive compared to his .989 OPS from 2020 to 2021. (We’re willing to overlook his performance in 2022 as he’s regaining his rhythm after a serious knee injury). Basically, it’s based on underlying metrics that suggest that unlike Betts or Riley, who had neither good nor bad intervals, or Bellinger, who may have been willing to step back, there’s more to it. It is possible

2) You can improve your defense.

This may be surprising, as there is plenty of video available of Acuna catching runners carelessly enough to challenge his impressive arm cannon, but advanced defensive metrics don’t bode well for his 2023 season. Statcast had him at minus 4 runs, and Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved indicated minus 2 runs, and the reasons were the same. Check out Statcast’s details on how we got to minus 4:

Throwing arm: Plus 5, tied for fourth best

Range value: minus 8, equal to the 12th weakest

It’s not just or mainly about errors; These are plays that should have been made and weren’t made, like this or this or this or this:

Or even this, despite the fact that he made up for it with an exceptional shot.

We show you these poorly executed plays to tell you one thing: It could be good news.

That’s because it’s not the same as asking a bad defender like Kyle Schwarber to improve his fielding, because that outcome would be unlikely given the skills Schwarber has and doesn’t have. It’s not a lack of speed or skill that can’t be easily overcome, like if you put a catcher in the outfield. It’s true that Acuña’s speed has been diminished since before his knee injury – he was once elite; Last year he was in the 65th percentile – still above average. And some of the plays he didn’t make were probably to protect his knee in less urgent situations.

The defensive shortcomings are not due to any physical limitations, which means they are not something a young and extremely talented player cannot overcome.

Consider this: If Acuña had shown average range in 2023, his WAR would have gone from 8.3 to about 8.9. If he had been even slightly above average, he would have been closer to 9.3 WAR. Asking him to be above average may be too much, but expecting him to be just average isn’t fair. Simply eliminating lost balls in the sun or reading hits a little better – we say these as if they were easy things, which they clearly are not – will go a long way toward having an even more valuable season.

3. He may have a better success rate for stolen bases.

One controversial aspect of Acuña’s 2023 campaign was that although he had 73 steals, he ranked only sixth in FanGraphs’ baserunning value metric, being half as valuable as Corbin Carroll in that regard. That’s because although Acuna led the majors in stolen bases, he also ranked second in failed attempts, and getting caught once hurts more than it’s worth being successful. (He was also good, but he didn’t stand out much on baserunning plays that didn’t involve attempting a steal.)

What you need to look for here applies more to second base than third, because although the stats say that Acuña was 14-of-16 out of 16 attempting to steal third base, the truth is that he The thief was not caught by anyone who caught him. not once. (The two failed attempts occurred because he was surprised by the pitcher throwing to the base.)

Instead, he was caught by the pitcher at first base five times, which is one of 12 times he was caught trying to steal second base, the second most in the Major Leagues. While it may be tempting to think Acuna should try to get more steals in 2024, the most valuable way to do so would be to become more efficient at stealing, even if he ends up with fewer fouls.

Consider this: Looking only at his scrum component of the baserunning metric, there was a three-player tie for third place. Acuna stole more bases than Carroll and CJ Abrams, but look at the success rate.

No one, obviously, would be upset if Acuña simply repeated the same stolen base numbers, but trading in a few bases taken for fewer outs given up would be more valuable — especially when you consider the quality of those at-bats. Those who hit behind him in the Atlanta lineup.

Like we said, it’s not fair expect More than Acuna. But that’s not unreasonable considering his age, talent and the season we’ve just seen him produce. Also: We haven’t even considered the consequences of bringing his left-handed swing into play. There may be more that we haven’t seen yet.

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