Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. caps historic season with NL Rookie of the Year award

There was hype, plenty of hype. Ronald Acuña Jr. didn’t just meet it, he torched it in one of the historically great seasons for a player barely out of his teens.

Now the Braves phenom has the hardware to show for it, beating out the NationalsJuan Soto and DodgersWalker Buehler on Monday night, taking 27 out of 30 first-place votes for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

He is the eighth player in franchise history to be named ROY, and the first since Craig Kimbrel in 2011.

“First of all, I would like to give thanks to God, my family, my parents and to all my teammates who’ve always supported me from the first day that I got the call to the big leagues,” Acuña Jr. said. “This award represents all our hard work as a team this season.”

Acuna, 20, entered the season directly in the spotlight after being named everyone’s minor league player of the year as a 19-year-old in 2017. When he made his MLB debut in late April series in Cincinnati, the Venezuelan outfielder did not disappoint.

He hit his first home run in his second game, a 416-foot blast and delivered one of the Braves’ most memorable moments in their return to the postseason, becoming the youngest player in history to hit a grand slam when he went deep off fellow finalist Buehler in Game 3 of the NLDS vs. the Dodgers.

In all, Acuña hit .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers — including one in five straight games — 26 doubles and four triples with 64 RBI and 16 steals. Since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966, no first-year player has ever had a wRC+ higher than Acuña’s 143, with 1990 ROY David Justice coming closest at 138.

At every turn, Acuña seemingly linked his name with greats both past and present.

His 26 homers were better than the likes of Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews and Frank Robinson in their first seasons. Acuña’s 144 OPS+ is the second highest since World War II for a rookie 20 years or younger, bested by only Mike Trout‘s 168 in his ROY season of 2012.

Oh, as for that postseason grand slam? At 20 years, 293 days, Acuña broke the record set by Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, who hit a grand slam in Game 5 of the 1953 World Series at 21 years, 349 days.

In any other year, he would have been a runaway winner. But joining Acuña in nearly every one of those historical nuggets was the Nationals phenom of their own in Soto, who didn’t turn 20 until the season’s end.

Soto hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers, 25 doubles and a triple, and while he and Acuña tied with 3.7 fWAR, his OPS+ was just two points below Acuña’s at 142. But that figure was still better than a laundry list of HOFer who won ROY, including in Orlando Cepeda, Mays and Bench.

Meanwhile, Buehler was sensational for National League champion Dodgers’ rotation with a 3.04 ERA, 151 strikeouts and an 8-5 record over 137 1/3 innings.

In the last 50 years, only seven rookies had a better ERA+ than Buehler’s 148 and three of them, Jose Fernandez (2013), Mark Fidrych (159) and Hideo Nomo (149) were named ROY in their respective leagues.

With that star-studded list of finalists, Acuña stood out by all but carrying the Braves offense to the NL East crown after three straight 90-loss seasons.

While All-Stars Ozzie Albies and Nick Markakis struggled in the second half, with 67 and 88 wrC+s, respectively, Acuña hit 71 percent above league average, and when Freddie Freeman cooled in August with a 115 wRC+, Acuña had his best full month of the season (190).

Acuña’s Rookie of the Year added to Atlanta’s haul of postseason awards as Freeman, Markakis and Ender Inciarte all won Gold Gloves and Freeman was named the Defensive Player of the Year at first base.

The Braves may not be done, either, as Tuesday night Brian Snitker is a finalist for NL Manager of the Year along with the Brewers’ Craig Counsell and the Rockies Bud Black.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.