As the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, the Atlanta Braves sensation joins some fine company
When Ronald Acuna Jr. was named the National League Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year in early November, he became the sixth Atlanta Braves newcomer to win the award and the eighth overall in Braves’ franchise history.
Other Atlanta Braves named NL Rookie of the Year are: Craig Kimbrel (2011), Rafael Furcal (2000), David Justice (1990), Bob Horner (1978), and Earl Williams (1971). The other franchise winners were from the Boston Braves — outfielder Sam Jethroe (1950) and shortstop Alvin Dark (1948), who received his award when it was still given to Major League Baseball’s best overall rookie.
Acuna Jr. received 27 of 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America panel after first a season comparable to some of the greats of the game. After making his debut at age 20 years, 128 days, he appeared in 111 games and hit .293 (127-for-433) with a team-high 26 homers, a .917 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) and 16 steals.
He became one of just five players in MLB history to reach 26 homers in a season prior to his 21st birthday and one of only 10 players to have at least 25 homers and 15 steals as a rookie. Acuna Jr. hit eight leadoff homers to pass the previous club mark of seven set by Marquis Grissom in 1996, and became just the second Major Leaguer in the modern era to hit a leadoff homerun in three second consecutive games, falling one short of Brady Anderson’s MLB mark of four set in 1996.
Acuna Jr. homered in five straight from August 11-14 to tie the modern-day franchise record for most consecutive games with a homer and became the youngest player in MLB history to go deep in four straight games. He also became the youngest player ever to hit a grand slam in a postseason game when he took out Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. Prior to that blow, legendary New York Yankee Mickey Mantle held the mark with a grand slam in Game 5 of the 1953 World Series against Brooklyn.
A strong second half of the season was key to the 6-foot-0, 205-pound native of La Guaira, Venezuela, adding his name to the list of Atlanta’s rookie greats.
Appearing in all 68 games after the All-Star break, Acuna Jr. hit .322 (85-for-264) with 19 homers, 54 runs scored, a .403 on-base percentage, and a .625 slugging percentage. The 85 hits and 54 runs were second most among all Major Leaguers after the break, his 19 homers were fourth most and his 1.028 OPS was fifth highest.
He made his debut on April 25 in Cincinnati and singled off Kevin Shackleford for his first career hit, then the next night took Reds starter Homer Bailey deep in his first plate appearance for his career dinger. He also played all three outfield positions over the course of the season.
Acuna Jr. chose to view his award as a reflection of the success Atlanta experienced as a team in 2018. Thought to be at least a couple of years away in their rebuilding project, the Braves instead went 90-72 and won the NL East division before falling to the Dodgers in the NLDS.
“I’m extremely proud of everything my teammates and I accomplished this season,” Acuna said. “and to me, this award represents all the hard work we put in throughout the year.”
Here’s a brief look at the other Atlanta Braves who have been named ROY:
In his inaugural season, the right-handed closer set an MLB mark for saves by a rookie with 46 and finished with 127 strikeouts in 77 innings pitched. He also posted a scoreless streak of 38 ⅓ innings. A seven-time All-Star, Kimbrel was traded to San Diego in 2015, which traded him to Boston in 2016. As part of the Red Sox’ World Series winning squad in 2018, he became the youngest in MLB history to reach 300 saves. He posted 42 regular-season saves in 2018 and 6 more in the postseason.
RAFAEL FURCAL The speedy shortstop made the jump all the way from Class A ball to the Majors in 2000, and went 2-for-4 in his MLB debut against the Colorado Rockies. He had 134 hits, stole 40 bases and batted .295 in his rookie season. Signed by the Dodgers as a free agent in 2008, Furcal went on to play for St. Louis and Miami before retiring in 2014.
The man who had stepped into the right-field spot when “Mr. Brave” Dale Murphy was traded late in the 1989 season certainly proved he was up to the task the next year. In very similar fashion to Acuna Jr., Justice went on a second-half tear that brought him the ROY hardware. Justice finished with a 124 hits, 23 doubles, 28 homers, 78 RBIs, and a .282 batting average. And though the 1990 Braves didn’t surprise anyone by going 65-97, they certainly did the next year as they went worst to first in the NL and then fell just short to Minnesota in the World Series.
The first overall pick in the 1978 Amateur Draft out of Arizona State, Horner is one of only a handful of players in MLB history who have stepped straight into a team’s starting lineup without ever spending a day in the minors. He belted his first career homer of future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven and finished with 23 homers, 63 RBIs, a .313 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .539 — good enough to outdistance San Diego shortstop Ozzie Smith in the ROY race. Atlanta fans will probably also always remember Horner for his part in an Aug. 12, 1984, Sunday afternoon brawl with the San Diego Padres that is generally considered one of the nastiest in MLB annals, and one in which Horner protected teammate Pascual Perez despite having a cast on his right hand.
Despite never having caught in the minors, Williams won the 1971 ROY award playing that position. He started out as the team’s backup corner infielder that season but became a starter on April 16 when disgruntled third baseman Clete Boyer was released. The next day Williams hit two home runs and the next became the first player to blast one into the upper deck at what was then a brand new Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Though he was considered a poor defensive catcher at best, his offensive numbers of 33 homers, 87 RBIs and a .260 batting average were good enough to earn him ROY honors.
The eight total ROY awards as a franchise move the Braves into third place on MLB’s all-time list with the Philadelphia/Oakland A’s, behind the Dodgers (18) and the Yankees (9). And with plenty of highly-regarded prospects quickly moving through a stocked Braves’ farm system, it will be no surprise if this list gets even longer over the next few years. H&A
Cover photo: Ronald Acuna Jr. | Courtesy Atlanta Braves