Three Cuts: Ronald Acuña Jr. emerges as elite power-speed production threat
Frontrunners hold a distinct advantage and built-in safeguard: Everyone else is chasing them. As the 2019 campaign sprints past the 100-game mark, head-to-head series splits are victories for the leaders — teams on the chase make up zero ground and inch four games closer to the finish line.
This is exactly how the first second-half divisional showdown between the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals played out over the weekend. Atlanta stills holds a 6.5-game lead in the division despite the two teams' run differentials inching closer to even.
Brian Snitker's club still faces 20 more head-to-head matchups against division challengers and those games are bunched into two consecutive stretches on the schedule — most notably being 14 straight games against Philadelphia and Washington from Sept. 5-19. Performances like this weekend will only raise the level of difficulty for their rivals' chase.
1. Ronald Acuña Jr. is all but guaranteed to join the 30-30 Club
Find any scouting report on Ronald Acuña Jr. and his athleticism will draw rave reviews. Back in the spring of 2018, before the young outfielder set the baseball world on fire, shortstop Dansby Swanson had a very simple response to what makes Acuña so special: “He’s a better athlete than everybody else.” Part of that athleticism — generating power with ease — translated immediately. He’s just starting to scratch the surface of another aspect: His speed.
With his two-steal Saturday night against the Washington Nationals, Acuña tied a franchise record by swiping at least one base in five consecutive games. After stealing 29 bags in his first 203 career games, the 21-year-old now has eight steals in his past eight games. We’re watching a player learn to tap into his full arsenal on the fly.
Acuña became the 11th player in Braves history to join the 20-20 Club for home runs and stolen bases — and he’s on pace to join Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and Ron Gant as the organization’s only 30-30 Club members.
He’d be the second-youngest club member in baseball history behind only Mike Trout, who was 20 years old during his first and (so far) only 30-30 season.
That’s the sort of power-speed production which has quickly declined in baseball. Before Jose Ramirez and reigning American League MVP Mookie Betts joined the 30-30 mix last season, five years had passed since Mike Trout and Ryan Braun hit both thresholds in 2012. That was baseball’s longest such drought since no player followed up The Hammer’s 1963 campaign (44 homers, 33 steals) until Bobby Bonds in 1969.
For those who hopped on the annual anxiety bandwagon surrounding the Home Run Derby’s assault on its contestants' regular-season swings, Acuña should be a cautionary tale. He’s not just swinging for the fences since hitting 45 lasers in Cleveland, although he did homer in consecutive games after the break and again on Sunday night; instead, he’s starting to get on base more and then experimenting with how much damage he can inflict when he doesn’t have a bat in his hands. In his past eight games, he’s walked five times, scored eight runs and carried a .436 on-base percentage at the top of Atlanta’s lineup.
In terms of plausible 30-30 Club threats in 2019, it’s just Ronald Acuña Jr. and reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich.
That’s the type of company the Braves outfielder keeps nowadays.
2. Kevin Gausman was always better than his surface-level production
Kevin Gausman returned to the Atlanta Braves’ rotation on Sunday night and spun seven strong innings in a pivotal division showdown, allowing one run with eight strikeouts and zero walks. It was a start that prevented the Washington Nationals from gaining any ground in the National League East race during a pivotal four-game series.
Gausman entered the start with a 6.21 ERA and 2-5 record, two surface-level numbers that produced a collective Internet eye roll when the news of his start broke. There are legitimate criticisms of the former top-five pick’s previous performances, most notably how his two-pitch comfort zone can get him into serious trouble if either variation is not cooperating, but simply casting him aside would’ve been a mistake.
It’s fair to note that Gausman only allowing five hits despite 11 different batted balls exceeding 95 miles per hour was quite the stroke of good fortune against the Nationals. But if we’re going to deduct points for giving up hard contact in a stellar outing then Gausman needs far more credit for enduring bad luck in many of his early-season starts. The right-hander ranked in the top 78th percentile in hard-hit percentage and top 89th percentile in exit velocity, his personal-best mark in the Statcast era, entering Sunday night’s game.
Atlanta’s rotation needed a start like this.
With Max Fried sitting on the 10-day injured list with a blister, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson struggling in their latest spot starts and Mike Foltynewicz still in Triple-A, the Braves needed some good news outside of Mike Soroka and Dallas Keuchel, neither of whom enjoyed their best starts this week. Once again, organizational depth was Atlanta's not-so-secret weapon.
In what could prove to be one of the division race’s most important outings, an unlikely arm stepped up.
3. Someone alert the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox that you can’t win in October without a lights-out designated closer
The Atlanta Braves should add relief help this month. Even with a smaller group of surefire sellers thanks to baseball’s single trade deadline and crowded wildcard picture, there are enough options for Atlanta to upgrade its relief core. Big names should be considered — Will Smith, Shane Greene, Ken Giles — but look at what under-the-radar upgrades like Anthony Swarzak can mean for a bullpen. General manager Alex Anthopoulos took this route at last year’s deadline, acquiring Jonny Venters and Brad Brach for international bonus pool money (and technically getting Darren O’Day in the Kevin Gausman deal, though he has yet to throw a pitch in a Braves uniform).
The 2019 campaign has been fascinating for Atlanta’s bullpen efforts.
After early-season stumbles, a certain “Kimbrel Or Bust” sentiment gained traction. Luke Jackson should be one of baseball’s best bullpen stories — a player who bounced back from multiple DFAs to earn a late-inning role on a division leader — instead he’s an Internet punching bag because of his elevated blown saves tally. Practically the entire collection of presumed staples (A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Chad Sobotka, Jonny Venters, Jesse Biddle, Darren O’Day, Dan Winkler) are either gone or have given Atlanta next to nothing. Only three teams have a better bullpen ERA since May 1, and yet it’s treated like fool’s gold.
Atlanta has proven itself capable of winning its division with the current rotation of bullpen options, but the latest variation of the argument that Anthopoulos needs to trade for a top-end bullpen arm is that the Braves can’t win in October without an established, lights-out closer. This tracks with the common refrain that the final three outs are just different and unless you have a player who can guarantee ninth-inning security then you’re doomed when postseason baseball rolls around. But there are no guarantees. Just ask the past two World Series champions.
In December 2015, following a surprise playoff run with an exciting 25-and-under core including Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa, the Houston Astros went for it. They traded former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel, top-100 pitching prospect Vince Velasquez, young major-league arm Brett Oberholtzer and minor-leaguers Harold Arauz and Thomas Eshelman to Philadelphia in exchange for top-end closer Ken Giles. This came on the heels of Houston’s bullpen imploding during the 2015 ALDS against Kansas City and its dominant relief core. In retrospect, it’s turned into a fairly even trade: Philadelphia extracted a little more regular-season value thanks to Velasquez and the Astros got a good reliever and a World Series ring. Here’s how that regular-season value has played out so far, per FanGraphs:
(Velasquez has declined since becoming one of baseball’s most exciting young starters a couple years ago, Appel has yet to make the majors as one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory and Oberholtzer completely fell off the post-trade map. In retrospect, Astros outfielder Derek Fisher’s original inclusion would have played out better for Philly than Appel, though the 25-year-old has yet to figure out major-league pitching in limited playing time.)
The Boston Red Sox made a similar move one month earlier. General manager Dave Dombrowski's first significant roster splash arrived in the form of Craig Kimbrel that November, costing the club top-100 prospects Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra along with infielder Carlos Asuaje and left-hander Logan Allen. It was another monster prospect haul that still appears related to the Royals’ bullpen-driven World Series runs — a precursor to the Giles deal or Cleveland and Chicago gearing up for their own World Series pushes with Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, respectively, in 2016 — but it’s one that has yet to really hurt the Red Sox.
Manny Margot is the only regular major-leaguer on the San Diego Padres and, though still just 24 years old, he has yet to emerge as a star. Again, here’s the value scale to date, keeping in mind Boston eventually got a World Series ring out of the arrangement:
Padres received: 3.8 WAR
Red Sox received: 5.7 WAR
Given Margot’s decent floor thanks to his speed and defensive ability and Logan Allen’s potential, the Padres will likely win out on the value scale over time but the Red Sox would make this trade again any day of the week. When you look at both the Giles and Kimbrel trades, it seems to point to two truths: Prospects are not guaranteed to pan out and World Series champs need top-end closers.
Here’s the problem: That’s not exactly how things played out.
For starters, the Giles and Kimbrel trades can be considered successful because both players came with multiple years of control. They weren’t rentals. If the Astros had given up Vince Velasquez for 2016 Ken Giles (1.4 WAR, 4.11 ERA) and didn’t win a title, it would’ve been a miss. If the Red Sox had only gotten 2016 Craig Kimbrel (1.2 WAR, 3.40 ERA) for that package, it would’ve been a win for San Diego. Instead, both relievers were traded with three-plus years of control. Keep that in mind when formulating fair trade packages for the likes of Will Smith.
Perhaps more importantly, neither reliever played a central role in his respective team’s World Series run. The Astros’ four World Series wins were closed out by Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Joe Musgrove and Charlie Morton. Giles carried an 11.74 ERA that postseason. Kimbrel saved one World Series game and carried a 5.91 postseason ERA; Boston turned to Joe Kelly and Chris Sale for the final outs. (Imagine the reaction if Luke Jackson posted a 6.00 ERA this postseason.) The postseason’s built-in days off makes it tailor-made for riding a team’s best arms, often times opening the door for starters to work high-leverage situations in relief. In fact, the Royals are the only championship team to have their season's final out recorded by their designated closer in the past five years.
Atlanta followed this strategy last October by carrying Max Fried, Touki Toussaint and Sean Newcomb as NLDS relievers. It will have even more internal options this time around.
Repeat: Atlanta should upgrade its relief options. Anthopoulos and the front office have all the ammunition they will ever need to find relief help, even if it is on the margins with an under-the-radar name. If a top-end closer, particularly a controllable arm, becomes available at value, the Braves should be involved in the bidding. But suggesting that the Braves “can’t win in October without a new closer” is to ignore recent postseason history.