Three Cuts: Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto capping historic Rookie of the Year race
The Atlanta Braves’ recent West Coast trip built up a commanding division lead and started a magic-number countdown now sitting in the single digits.
The SunTrust struggles returned against the Washington Nationals, but no National League East rival appears poised to challenge Atlanta with two weeks remaining in the regular-season as Atlanta’s playoff odds have reached as high as 97.3 percent. Here are three observations from the week:
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto are finishing off one of baseball’s best Rookie of the Year races
For the final time in a season for the ages, rookie outfielders Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto squared off at SunTrust Park. And they did not disappoint.
The National League Rookie of the Year favorites combined for nine hits, four walks, one home run, one triple, one double, seven runs and three stolen bases in the three-game series. At the current pace, Soto will finish the season as the best teenage hitter in history and the 20-year-old Acuña will all but match his offensive output while providing more overall value for a contender.
There is no wrong answer for NL Rookie of the Year because we’re not watching a Rookie of the Year race. We’re watching the latest wave of baseball’s youth movement surpass its predecessors.
Acuña and Soto are currently on pace to be two of the four best under-21 offensive forces in baseball history.
The only company they keep is with Hall of Famers and a guaranteed future Cooperstown resident. Here are the all-time weighted runs created plus (measuring overall offensive production where 100 is league average) leaders from under-21 hitters with a minimum of 400 plate appearances:
Ted Williams: 156
Mike Trout: 153
Juan Soto: 153
Ronald Acuña Jr.: 149
Frank Robinson: 145
Ted Williams and Mike Trout made their MLB debuts 72 years apart. The fact that two rookies playing the same position in the same division during the same season are hitting at this rate before turning 21 is staggering. It's never happened before. It may never happen again.
Acuña led Soto in wins above replacement entering Sunday’s action (1.5 bWAR advantage, 0.2 fWAR advantage), but the gap is nowhere as noticeable as either rival fan base will likely claim at season's end. Baseball may have grown slightly numb to the phenom craze after the historic arrivals of Trout, Carlos Correa, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor or Manny Machado in recent years, but the sport has never seen two young hitters like Acuña and Soto arrive at the same time.
The Acuña-Soto debate seems destined to join an exclusive list of closely contested Rookie of the Year races between future MLB stars.
2015 AL ROY: The best comparison for the current NL race took place three years ago. Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor were separated by a mere 15 voting points after posting four-plus WAR seasons — and, in terms of value, they rank as top-five shortstops since 2015. Neither player has even turned 25.
2007 NL ROY: Future MVP Ryan Braun beat out five-time All-Star Troy Tulowitzki by two total voting points in 2007. From their dynamic rookie debuts to 2016, both players ranked top-20 in WAR among position players.
1998 NL ROY: Kerry Wood and Todd Helton went on to garner seven combined All-Star nominations, but the pitcher edged out the hitter here. Wood was one of the most talented pitchers of his generation and all Helton did was hit 369 home runs with a .414 on-base percentage over the course of a 17-year career.
1981 NL ROY: Fernandomania swept up the entire baseball universe in 1981, watching as a 20-year-old left-hander won both Rookie of the Year and the NL Cy Young award. Turns out, Fernando Valenzuela edged out Hall of Famer Tom Seaver for the league’s top pitcher and Hall of Famer Tim Raines as the league’s top rookie.
1978 NL ROY: Jumping straight from college to the pros, former Brave Bob Horner still ranks as one of the top under-22 hitters ever. Only nine players have ever hit more home runs before turning 22, ranking directly ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. and Johnny Bench. In 1978, that hitting prowess helped him gain a four-point voting edge over 13-time Gold Glove winner and Hall of Fame inductee Ozzie Smith for Rookie of the Year.
Their promising careers are just getting started, but the Great Ronald Acuña Jr. vs. Juan Soto Rookie of the Year Debate could be one baseball will remember for a long, long time.
Braves’ regular-season road dominance would not function as a playoff security blanket
Brian Snitker’s group seems to prefer the barnstorming lifestyle.
The Atlanta Braves own the National League’s best road record, a 45-30 traveling show exaggerated by the team’s recent West Coast swing. Atlanta has found even more success away from home as the playoff race heats up, posting an 18-8 second-half road record with a run differential of plus-28.
Meanwhile, the team is hovering around .500 at SunTrust Park this season — owning a 75-80 record overall since moving into the new ballpark — and they’ve won just two of their past six home series.
This sizable gap between Atlanta’s home-road splits does not change this fact: The Braves should and will want to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs. Even setting aside the economic boon of hosting as many playoff home games as possible, no team would prefer to play the biggest games of its campaign outside friendly confines.
In May 2017, FiveThirtyEight found that MLB home teams have won 54 percent of regular-season games and 54.2 percent of postseason games since 2000. Whereas NBA and NFL playoff teams enjoy a significant advantage at home, that has not held true in baseball’s postseason.
However, last year’s playoffs skew those numbers: Home teams went 27-11 in the 2017 MLB playoffs.
Atlanta’s regular-season road success would not provide a security blanket, either. Over the past five seasons, teams with the National League’s best road record have combined for a 3-10 road playoff record.
Any notion that the Braves should try to not get home-field advantage should be thrown out immediately; it’s more important to finish strong, which goes hand-in-hand with making a run at the NL’s best overall record, or at least a better record than a potential NLDS opponent (likely) from the NL West division.
Under the current playoff format featuring the one-game wild card, only one series of five or more games has gone the distance with the road team winning every game: The 2012 NLDS between San Francisco and Cincinnati as the two teams played a 2-3 format (Giants hosted first two games, Reds hosted final three) due to scheduling conflicts.
In other words, of the 42 MLB playoff series played since 2012, there is just one occasion where the “home-field disadvantage” argument would apply … and the team that pulled off the trick turned out to be that year’s eventual World Series champions in the middle of an inexplicable turn-of-the-century biennial dynasty. It’s rare.
Atlanta should not (and will not) play in fear of being the second team on that list.
Atlanta's walk issues have made a comeback at the wrong time
Remember the uproar over Atlanta pitching's control issues at the beginning of the season? The Braves walked 85 players over their first 16 games — still posting a 9-7 overall record — featuring the unforgettable 14-10 loss to the Cubs in the freezing rain.
The Braves' walk rate over that span stood at 13.3 percent.
The walk issue has made an untimely return over the past two weeks right as the Braves are looking to finish off a division race.
Over the past 13 games, the Braves have walked 82 batters, including a franchise-worst 14 batters in a single game on Saturday against the Nationals.
Atlanta pitchers are walking 15.4 percent of batters faced over that span.
“Usually all walks hurt you at some point," veteran catcher Tyler Flowers said. "At some point it doesn’t matter if it’s two-out walks or leadoff walks, they seemingly always find a way: A blooper, ball in the gap, boot a ball.