By: Chris Larson
When you think of a leadoff hitter, you tend to think of someone that is sort of the table setter at the top of the lineup. Typically, a leadoff hitter is a batter who knows how to get on base when it matters the most, has plenty of speed to produce runs, and someone that basically energizes the rest of the lineup. All 30 MLB teams would love to have a prototypical leadoff hitter that checks all of those boxes off, but few rarely have it in today's game because of the changing dynamic of the game itself.
However, there's one guy in Atlanta that begs to differ and proves that if a team tries hard enough in it's scouting efforts, it can find a true guy to put at the top of it's lineup. That's where Atlanta Braves rightfielder, Ronald Acuna Jr., comes into the picture. Acuna Jr. is a tremendous leadoff hitter, someone who has excellent bat-to-ball skills, and a player that grinds it out every single time he is on the base paths. In fact, you could even make the argument that he's the best leadoff hitter in baseball right now.
To back up that argument, it's important to take a look at how Acuna Jr. is batting so far this year. Over the span of 553 plate appearances, Acuna Jr. is batting: .298/.378/.538 with 145 hits, 16 doubles, 1 triple, 33 home runs, 80 RBI, 28 stolen bases, 55 walks, and 136 strikeouts. The best part is that he's only 21 years of age and has yet to really hit his true peak years of a prototypical baseball player which tend to be between 24 and 29 years old.
Currently, Ronald Acuna Jr. is not only making a case to potentially be a candidate for the National League Most Valuable Player of the Year, but is beginning to approach Mike Trout territory in terms of his offensive impact and the type of numbers that he is putting up. Acuna Jr. is on the cusp of putting together a 30-30 season (30 home runs and 30 stolen bases) and with two more stolen bases, he would join Mike Trout, as the only players to have a 30-30 season, prior to their 22nd birthday. In fact, Acuna Jr. is so talented at the plate, that he could easily reach 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases before the season is over.
With numbers like that, it's hard to find another leadoff hitter around baseball that has had the same type of impact on their team or one that is pushing to make history. For more on that, let's take a look at how Ronald Acuna Jr. stacks up with other qualified leadoff hitters around the league.
Among those leadoff hitters, with at least 300 plate appearances so far this season, Acuna Jr. ranks eighth in hits (108), second in home runs (26), fifth in RBI (58), eighth in walks (37), first in stolen bases (26), and third in on-base percentage (.381) over the course of 396 plate appearances. Furthermore, in that sample size, has an Isolated Power value os (.255), which puts him fifth among those qualified leadoff hitters, along with a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) value of (141), good enough for fourth on the list.
Sure, some of the other leadoff hitters around the game (most notably D.J. LeMahieu of the New York Yankees, George Springer of the Houston Astros, and Jeff MeNeil of the New York Mets) might have better stats overall, but when you combine all five tools together and the prototypical qualities of a true leadoff hitter, there is virtually no one better than Ronald Acuna Jr. and the Atlanta Braves can speak openly to the massive contributions that he always brings to the plate.
As such, to realize the type of contributions that Ronald Acuna Jr. brings to the Braves lineup, let's do a quick exercise. For starters, without D.J. LeMahieu in their lineup, the New York Yankees would likely still find a way to be successful and outslug their opponents because of the number of power bats that they possess. The same could be said for George Springer and the tremendous amount of impact that he has had on the Houston Astros lineup all year long. Without Springer, the Astros could still find a way to compete with the best of the best because their lineup is so deep. However, the same can't be said about the Atlanta Braves when you subtract Ronald Acuna Jr. from it.
Yes, the Atlanta Braves have other impact hitters around the diamond including first baseman Freddie Freeman, centerfielder Ender Inciarte, third baseman Josh Donaldson, and second baseman, Ozzie Albies, but Ronald Acuna Jr. has enough tools to legitimately make the Atlanta Braves the second best team in the National League. Given his impact alone, it's a big reason why the Braves currently occupy first place in the National League East and why they could give the Los Angeles Dodgers, a serious run for their money, come the postseason.
Regardless of how talented Ronald Acuna Jr. is, it might ultimately be difficult for him to overtake Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers or Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers for the National League Most Valuable Player Award, but if he continues hitting like he has over the remaining 42 games of the season for the Atlanta Braves, anything is possible. With his talent level and the tools that he brings to the plate everytime he steps up for an at bat, Acuna Jr. is a talented baseball player and a true star that is going to be fun to watch over the next several years.
No matter what ends up happening in the National League MVP race, Ronald Acuna Jr. has had so much of an impact on the Atlanta Braves lineup and has everything of a prototypical leadoff hitter, that it's hard to argue against him being the best leadoff hitter in the game today. Sure, others might rank ahead of him in certain categories, but he's got everything any team would want - speed on the base paths, tremendous bat-to-ball skills, the ability to exercise plate discipline when it matters the most, and most important of all - a heart of someone that eats, breathes, and sleeps the game of baseball.