It took Damon Berryhill just two at-bats to realize Ronald Acuña was special.
The date was July 13. Berryhill, the manager of the Braves’ Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate, had just received the touted Acuña after his promotion from Double-A Mississippi. Berryhill placed Acuña in Gwinnett’s leadoff spot immediately, eager to see how the precocious Venezuelan would fare.
“His first game, we’re facing Charlotte and he swung at (consecutive) sliders to strike out his first at-bat,” Berryhill said. “He was probably excited; it was the one time I did see him chase out of the zone.
“But his next at-bat, he walked up and first slider (in the zone) he saw, he hit it over the right-field wall for a home run. Right then, I knew, this is what they’ve been telling me.”
Acuña delivered a minor league season for the record books in 2017. At the tender age of 19, he shot from high Class A to Double-A to Triple-A, and managed to perform better at every level. Overall he hit .325 with 21 home runs, 82 RBIs and 44 stolen bases. He did it all while showcasing top-flight speed, strong defense in center field and a big arm.
For a historic season not even he saw coming, Acuña is Baseball America’s 2017 Minor League Player of the Year.
“Before the season started my goal this year was 45 stolen bases and 15 home runs, but I got 20 home runs already, so that was cool,” Acuña said through a translator. “I didn’t expect it to be in Triple-A. When I got called up from high A to Double-A I wasn’t surprised because they told me it was going to be one month in high A. When I got called up from Double-A to Triple-A, that was a surprise. I did not expect that at all.”
The Braves front office didn’t either.
Acuña was limited to just 40 games last season at low Class A Rome because of a broken thumb, and his numbers at high Class A Florida to start this season—.287 with an .814 OPS—were solid but not jaw-dropping.
But Braves player development personnel saw something beyond the stat line, something they felt would allow Acuña to do the improbable and actually perform better as the competition level improved.
“It was the approach,” Braves assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz said. “You see him laying off breaking balls out of the zone, he’s swinging at fastballs, he’s hitting balls hard when he is getting pitches to hit. He’s playing plus defense. He’s doing everything we look at that aren’t necessarily stat-driven markers . . . His approach was such, it was an advanced approach for that level.”
Advanced for the level is a common theme with Acuña. Even before this season, he made a habit of rising quicker and performing better than his similar-aged peers. He skipped the Dominican Summer League entirely after signing as an international free agent in 2014 and came straight to the U.S., where he delivered an .818 OPS over two Rookie-level stops in 2015, his first professional season. After missing most of last season with his broken thumb, Acuna was sent to play in the offseason Australian Baseball League, where he hit .375 with a 1.001 OPS despite being almost six years younger than the league’s average player.
One reason Acuña has been able to handle everything thrown at him is he knew what to expect. His father Ron was a Mets outfield prospect in the late 1990s and early 2000s and played eight seasons in the minors, topping out at Double-A. Growing up in Venezuela, Acuña got a crash course from his father on what was truly needed to be a successful ballplayer.
“It meant a lot having a dad who played the game, a lot of experience,” Acuña said. “Every time I’m doing something wrong, I can relay it to my dad and he can tell me I need to do things this way or that way.”
In a roundabout way, his father’s playing career is what led Acuña to becoming a Brave.
Rolando Petit, the Braves’ director of Cuban and Venezuelan scouting, tried to sign Acuña’s father for the Braves when he was an amateur in Venezuela. While Ron Acuña took the Mets’ offer instead, he and Petit stayed in contact throughout his career.
It was in that context, after his playing career was done, that the elder Acuña made sure Petit got an early look at his son on the youth fields of La Sabana in northern Venezuela.
“You have to understand his dad was a professional player and he had really good tools,” Petit said. “I liked his dad a lot. I’ve known his mom, his uncle. His godfather was the one who used to call me to go and see his dad. So I saw Ronald the first time when he was 14 years old. I talked to his dad and questioned his dad. I asked his dad who was going to be a better hitter and his dad didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘He is going to be a better hitter than me.’ ”
That was enough for Petit, who kept close watch on Ronald through the next year and a half and signed him for $100,000 on the first day of the 2014 international signing period.
It was not a large bonus. Nearly 200 other international players signed for more during that signing period. The Braves themselves signed six players for larger bonuses.
In fact, when Acuña woke up the morning of July 2, 2014, the first day of the signing period, he planned to sign with another team, for even less money.
“I was going to sign with the Royals,” Acuña said. “But that same day, the Braves called and offered me more money. So, I decided to sign with the Braves.”
It’s surprising, in retrospect, that Acuña was not more highly sought as an amateur. But even Petit, who had a unique insight into Acuña’s background and makeup, did not see this coming.
“I truly believed when we signed him he could hit, but to be honest with you I don’t think any scout can tell you that any kid is going to run that fast through the system,” Petit said. “It’s him. He’s made it. With his mind, his consistency, his desire, his natural tools.”
That combination has turned Acuña into a force in the minors, and one the Braves front office had to dig into their past to learn how to handle best.
“Talking internally about how we were going to handle this season, it took us back to the days of Andruw Jones,” Schuerholz said. “I’m not trying to make a comparison there at all, because I don’t think it’s fair to do that. But in terms of a very talented player and how he progresses through, we went back to (former scouting director) Paul Snyder and the days when they were bringing Andruw through and the common thread was, ‘When he shows you he’s ready at a level, move him up. Don’t let him just sit at a level and get bored, because he’s one of those special players who will rise to the challenge and will shine at every level if you let him.’ And as you can tell, he did that.”
Acuña did that to the point that tales of his feats began to take on almost a mythic quality. There was the time in Syracuse he hit a ball nearly 450 feet—against the wind. (“It was probably the farthest ball we’ve had hit this year and it was against the wind,” Gwinnett hitting coach John Moses said. “Our jaws just dropped.”) There was the time he raced home for the go-ahead run in the ninth inning on a chopper back to the pitcher. There was the time he went home to first on an infield single in 3.85 seconds—a Billy Hamilton-esque time out of the righthanded batter’s box.
There were the four hitting streaks of at least 10 games, the highlight-reel catches, the runners gunned down on a line to the plate.
Really, there was everything.
“He’s got the full package,” Berryhill said. “It’s really kind of a couple times in a lifetime you get the opportunity to see someone as advanced as he is at 19. He’s one of those special kids.”
What They’re Saying About Ronald Acuña
“I had an opportunity with (Ken Griffey) Jr., with Alex (Rodriguez), and now Acuña. I mean you can throw him into that lot of guys, for me, at 19 years old. He’s only going to get better. The guys are special when they come around like this.”
— Gwinnett hitting coach John Moses, a former Mariners player and coach
“When he does something spectacular, it’s kind of like ‘That’s Acuña.’ You hear guys in the clubhouse who have been there say in the big leagues there’s not many guys like Acuña.”
— Gwinnett catcher Kade Scivicque
“Watching him play, you can see it. This is what he was meant to do from the time he was put on this earth. He was meant to play baseball.”
— Braves assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz
“He’s young so he’s going to go through some growing pains, I’m sure, but he has everything you need to be an impact player in the big leagues. Really, the sky is the limit. He has a superstar ceiling.”
— A National League pro scout
“I went five days straight to batting practice just to see him hit. He wasn’t here long, but when he was, I couldn’t wait to get to park to see him hit.”
— An NL pro scout who saw Acuña at Double-A Mississippi