When rookie outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. made his big league debut on April 25, big things were expected from the 20-year-old. He had been ranked the No. 1 prospect on the planet by ESPN's Keith Law and other analysts, and he made a huge impression in spring training. During the second half, he emerged as one of the season's hottest hitters, slugging 19 home runs in 68 games to help the Atlanta Braves return to the postseason as National League East champs for the first time since 2013 and capping his 26-homer season while hitting .293 and slugging .552.
But in the big leagues, the Venezuelan prodigy showed off something besides tremendous skill at the plate, on the bases and in the field: He's unafraid to show fans how he feels about how he's doing, celebrating moments big and small, goofing around with teammates such as Ozzie Albies and embracing the biggest moments on the big stage.
Last month, Acuna sat down with ESPN's Marly Rivera to talk about his season, his roots in a baseball family, his respect for Nationals teen phenom Juan Soto and the National League Rookie of the Year Award that one of them is expected to win.
Marly Rivera: Can you talk to us about the weight of expectations when you come from a baseball family?
Ronald Acuña Jr.: There's a lot of us that have signed in professional baseball, like Alcides Escobar, Kelvin Escobar, Vicente Campos, Edwin Escobar, Michael Garcia, Hugo Cardona and my brother, Luis Angel Acuña, who just signed, among others who are right behind us. We hope they emerge and get here to the top level, which is Major League Baseball.
I take great pride coming from a baseball family. My cousins were role models for me. When I saw them playing on TV, it filled me with a lot of pride. It was like I wanted to be in their position. Today I am here, doing what they were doing before.
MR: Your dad was a baseball player, but he didn't quite make it to the big leagues. Is he sort of living his dream now through you?
Acuña: My dad was my main motivation, as I got to see him play. I would see him play every day in Venezuela, and I once had the opportunity to come here, and I saw him play in Double-A in 2005 with the Fisher Cats. That really was one of my main motivations as to why I am here today, thank God. He inspired me a lot. He taught me a lot of things about baseball that I didn't know. You learn new things in baseball every day. He really was a great mentor for me.
MR: The most important question of all: Who is the best baseball player in the Acuña family?
Acuña: Well, right now, I can tell you my brother, the one who signed. I say that because when I signed, I didn't have the abilities that he has today. Seeing how my dad played, I would say that he didn't even have them. My dad was good, but he didn't have the abilities [my brother] has today. I can truthfully say my brother ... he has the five tools.
MR: People consider you to be a five-tool player too ...
Acuña: Yes, but the kind of player that I was before is not the same type of player that he is today. He kind of has more abilities [than I did]. If I hit a ball out of the park, he can hit it out further than I did when I was 16.
MR: Where does this passion that you have for the game come from? It's a pleasure to see you play.
Acuña: I would say that's something you're born with because ever since I started to like baseball, since I saw my cousins, my dad play, it became the sport I love the most. I always go out and enjoy myself because it's a kids' sport, as they say. I always like to enjoy myself because you never know who's watching, and I always want people to take with them the best of me.
MR: Do that passion and that joy also come from your family?
Acuña: I would say so. Alcides is like that too, with the same attitude, always smiling during the game, enjoying himself. And now he's like 32 or 33 years old. My cousins are also like that.
MR: What's the best advice that you got from Alcides or anybody in your family when you reached the major leagues?
Acuña: A lot of my cousins gave me a lot of advice. Alcides congratulated me. He said, 'Cousin, thank God you're here. Keep working hard. This is just the beginning.'
MR: Who was your favorite player to watch when you were growing up?
Acuña: Miguel Cabrera. Each time I saw him play ... I didn't see him play here in the United States, but I saw him in Venezuela with the Aragua Tigers. It was really like seeing the president. Miguel Cabrera went to bat, and I would be there glued to my phone (recording and taking pictures). I always watched him play because I really liked the way he played. The easiness with which he hit. That really motivated me to be the way I am today.
MR: Have you had a chance to talk to Miggy?
Acuña: We had the chance to play together in spring training. I remember he was at first base, and he gave me a lot of advice. In the little time I was at first, he told me, 'Keep working hard. Stay humble. Stay working hard. Do what they tell you because they're the ones that know.' And you take that to heart as an example.
MR: What did that moment mean to you? You were with your idol at first base.
Acuña: I don't think I will ever forget about that. I couldn't believe I was talking to Miguel Cabrera. Before I would see him on television, and then I had the chance to be on the same field with him. I take pride in that.
MR: Who is your favorite player to watch today?
Acuña: My favorite player nowadays is Starling Marte. I like the way he plays the game, and we always keep in touch. He gives me a lot of advice, and I like how he shows his abilities during the game.
MR: What's the best advice you've gotten from Marte?
Acuña: To keep working hard, keep doing things well, like it's supposed to be, and to have fun on the field.
MR: You know the expectations. You were the No. 1-ranked minor league player, the No. 1-ranked prospect in all of baseball, and now you're one of the favorites for NL Rookie of the Year. How do you handle that at only 20 years old?
Acuña: For me, one of the things I do is I approach it as if it weren't happening. We're just playing to win. I pretend like people are not even talking about that. That is how I deal with it because if you start thinking about that, you start thinking a lot, and you will get out of focus.
MR: Your thoughts are that the award doesn't even exist?
Acuña: Just like it didn't exist right now. When the offseason gets here, let's see who wins it.
MR: There is a fellow Venezuelan player who could be on that list of the best rookies: Gleyber Torres. There are a couple of Dominicans, Juan Soto and Miguel Andujar. Maybe next year we'll get Vlad Guerrero Jr. There's a crop of really young, five-tool players, and you're part of that.
Acuña: They are really great players, with the abilities they have. It's like seeing a player, a 19-year-old kid. Seeing Soto, what he is doing today, he's like a phenom, because he's 19 years old and has made it to the top level, at the big leagues. Everything he does is incredible. I enjoy watching him every time we play each other.
MR: If you had to vote -- and you can't vote for yourself -- whom would you vote for?
Acuña: In which of the two leagues, National League or American League? I'd vote for Soto, just because he is 19 years old, and everything he is doing, I would say not everyone can do that. It's incredible.
MR: Talk to me about these celebrations with Ozzie Albies in the dugout. We see the videos. You guys look like you're having a blast.
Acuña: Since we met in 2015, that friendship was born between us. That game spirit, that energy was always spread around to the rest of the players. It is kind of contagious. And the rest of the players also have that same energy, and we brought it from the minor leagues to the big leagues.
MR: This is an extension of what you used to do in the minors?
Acuña: That comes out on its own. It's something that's in the player. Right now, we have the same energy. Like I said, that spreads around, and we keep going and doing the same thing. We go out to enjoy ourselves during the game. And it's something contagious that we transmit to other players, and we carry on with that same energy toward our team, all together.
MR: Do you feel lucky to get to share this with Albies, someone who is close to your age and you've been with the past three years? You were together in the minors, and you guys seem to be such good friends.
Acuña: It's really incredible to see how he's come out on top. Everything he does, I think I enjoy it more that he does because I like to see him excel. I like to see him do things well.
MR: There's been a huge difference for you between the first half of the season and the second half of the season, especially statistically. What changed?
Acuña: I would say getting used to the pitches. It's not an excuse. The thing is that you come from the minor leagues, and you don't know what the game is like up here. Not just the game itself -- you don't know what the environment is like. You have to adapt quickly to the major leagues. And well, I was adapting, and it took me a bit longer. By the second half, I was ready for whatever came. Now toward the end of the season, we're ready to go.
MR: You didn't change anything?
Acuña: There's more information here in the majors than in the minors. In the minors, you go to play, and they say, 'Look, John Doe is going to pitch, and he throws fastballs and curveballs.' You go out there and see the ball and hit it. Here in the big leagues, you have meetings, you watch video of the pitches. 'Look, he throws a curveball and changeups.' So that was a lot of information for me. I was used to the minors.
Here in the big leagues, they throw curveballs, they throw you a slider with two strikes, they throw a lot of changeups when you have one strike, they start you off with a slider. It's a lot of information. And you can't think a lot when you're hitting. You have to see the ball and swing and that's it.
MR: It's just learning how to process all the information?
Acuña: I would say that was the main difference. As I said, in the minor leagues I was never used to whether a pitcher was throwing sliders. Look, I went to the game. He pitched, and I hit.
MR: What can you improve?
Acuña: Well, there is always time to improve. Improve everything.
MR: Is there something specific that you would like to work on next year? Not in the playoffs because you don't want to change anything during the playoffs, right? But looking at next year, what is something that you, after being in the majors this year, would like to improve?
Acuña: On how to deal with hard times, when you get in a slump. Some people get mad, and they don't even want to play. But I'm really a patient kid. I know how to deal with those things. I'm strong-minded because I know what a slump is. Many guys know about it but not how to deal with it.
MR: Is it because you come from a baseball family that you can handle those moments better?
Acuña: Before I signed, my father always taught me about the tough moments. Bad times will come. You're going to have 20 at-bats and not get a hit. You're going to strike out 15 times. And you have to have the same attitude. And that is one of the things that I have learned and I still carry with me.
MR: Do you ever worry about people maybe misinterpreting your joy and happiness playing the game? Sometimes, how demonstrative Latin players are can be seen the wrong way.
Acuña: I feel comfortable being myself. Like I said, this is a kids' game. I enjoy doing what I do without disrespecting the other team. I enjoy myself no matter what.
MR: You know the story of Andruw Jones. He was 19 years old with the Atlanta Braves when he made it to the '96 World Series. You are in that same position at only 20 years old. What does it mean to you to put on the Braves uniform and be able to perform and bring the playoffs back to Atlanta at only 20?
Acuña: It's an honor for me to wear the Braves uniform every day. It was the only team that really believed in me. They believed in my abilities, and they gave me the opportunity to come up to play professional baseball. A lot of people just made up excuses: 'He's too small, he doesn't do this, he doesn't do that.' They had the opportunity to sign me and the chance to believe in me, and I am giving it my best.
MR: Is that surprising, now that people see what you are doing in the majors, and this is the one team that you say believed in you?
Acuña: When you're about to sign, you're dealing with one of 30 organizations. One would say they wanted to sign me, and then they'd say, 'No, he's going to be too small, he's going to be like his father ... he won't behave' -- this, that and the other. And that means they don't believe in you. They would say, 'No, I am going to sign you, we're going to come next week to sign you.' And then the Braves came just one time and signed me. Right there, with no excuses. So that means they believed in me
MR: There was a little bit of criticism in spring training with the way you tilted your hat or 'he does this,' 'he does that.' Did that bother you?
Acuña: That's silly. I didn't mean to. It was the first day of spring training, and I had my hat on sideways, you know? It just happened. But you know how people are. They see things and start to talk. But I don't pay attention to any of that stuff. My focus is on what I want.
MR: Who has been the biggest role model for you inside the Braves' clubhouse?
Acuña: The one who has helped me the most, the one who has been the most support for me, is Ender Inciarte. Aside from us playing the same position, he's a role model. He's on me every day, 'Look, things are like this ... you have to do that.' I always say he's like my dad here.
MR: Is it better for you and more comfortable that Ender is also Venezuelan?
Acuña: There's an even more of special connection, there's more trust. He has the ability to tell you the way things are directly.
MR: Are you surprised by the impact you have had on the Braves, who just won the NL East against all expectations?
Acuña: No one picked us to move on to the postseason. But it's like I say, you have to play all nine innings in baseball, you have to catch the 27th out for the game to end. It really doesn't surprise me because we have been working so hard to achieve what we have accomplished, and today that's the fruit of our labor, what you do from the beginning until the end. And thank God today we're here.