Long before radar and camera systems that log every imaginable measurement became necessities at minor league affiliates across baseball, they were like Christmas morning toys to those who understood where the game was going. And in the Atlanta Braves organization, the most curious minds in the front office wanted to know whether their eyes were telling them the truth. That the 17-year-old who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 180 pounds really did hit the ball like grown men five inches taller and 75 pounds heavier.
A Trackman unit, used to evaluate players, was sent to Danville, Virginia, where the kid was spending the last three weeks of the 2015 season in rookie ball. About a year earlier, Ronald Acuña Jr. signed with the Braves for $100,000. He was supposed to be a Kansas City Royal, but the Braves swooped in on international signing day, July 2, with a heftier bonus offer. Atlanta soon recognized its fortune. The entire industry, which devoted tens of millions of dollars annually to teenagers from Latin America, had whiffed on Acuña. He was the Braves' little secret.
And after Danville, Atlanta knew he wouldn't remain a secret too much longer. The hands didn't just look fast. The sound when he made contact wasn't just loud. There were actual numbers to contextualize who Acuña was. The Braves combed data from batting practice. The ball was leaving his bat at 110 mph-plus. In games, triple-digit exit velocities were common. Acuña was essentially a senior in high school whose data resembled that of a big leaguer.
So for those who had that early look behind the curtain, the proof of his abilities is in everything that has come since. The next year, when other teams got hip to Acuña. And the year after, when he leapt from Class A to Triple-A, getting better every step of the way, and the baseball world understood how special he could be. Then last year, when he arrived in the major leagues still unable to legally buy a drink and exceeded expectations that couldn't have been much higher.
And now, a year after his debut, when he has guaranteed himself 1,000 times that original signing bonus and established himself as everything the Braves thought he could be and more, and all that's left for him to capture are the game's crown jewels -- the MVP trophy, the World Series ring and the title that can be held by just one person at a time.
Best Player in Baseball.
Some facts about the game. The ball weighs approximately five ounces. The mound is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. There is always a matchup between a pitcher and a batter. Mike Trout is the Best Player in Baseball.
The first three are written into baseball's rules. At this point, the fourth might as well be. Since he arrived in the major leagues for good at 20 years old, Trout has worn that designation like a Miss America sash. It is on him everywhere he goes, and he must live up to its standard daily. And for eight years running, Trout has. At some point, though, something will catch up. It could be age. It could be opponents. It could even be someone. And if it is someone, Acuña stands as good a chance as anyone.
His all-around game mirrors Trout's as much as any young player's. By the time Trout abdicates, some of his contemporaries -- Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Javier Baez -- might have aged out of contention. Of the other candidates who bring skills and youth -- Alex Bregman, Cody Bellinger, Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto -- none combines the precociousness of both quite like Acuña. Look at last year. He became the seventh player to hit 25 home runs in a season before his 21st birthday -- and the fastest to reach that mark, in 92 games. The other six on the list: Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Mathews and Tony Conigliaro. The first five are Hall of Famers.
Acuña became the youngest player to homer in five straight games. And he tied Ott for the most home runs in a month for a player 20 or younger with 11 in August. He was the youngest player in baseball history to receive a nine-figure contract, when he agreed three weeks ago to an eight-year deal that includes a pair of club options and, remarkably, was seen throughout the industry as an extreme bargain despite guaranteeing Acuña $100 million.
Everything is seen through the prism of Acuña's youth because what he's doing is so extraordinary for someone this young. Baseball is a sport that never has shied away from promoting its youngest players, so for Acuña to position himself amid that group -- and to do it as consistently as he has -- speaks to the scouting community's belief that he is Trout's heir.
His start to 2019 has done nothing to dissuade them. In the second half last season, Acuña hit .322/.403/.625 with 19 home runs. Thus far this year, he is hitting .307/.429/.600 with six home runs. Yes: That's a 1.028 OPS in the second half of 2018 and a 1.029 OPS so far in 2019. Acuña's walk rate is up 40 percent this year. He's hitting more home runs per plate appearance. He's one of the 15 fastest players in the game. He could play center field, and play it well, if not for Ender Inciarte, who for the last three years has played it extremely well for Atlanta.
He is everything everyone wants in a baseball player. And he turned 21 four months ago.
Here's the cynical part -- and there needs to be a cynical part because Ronald Acuña Jr. is human, and because baseball is baseball, and because failure is so inherent in both, and because it is even more acute when the standard is Best Player In Baseball.
Acuña is from a baseball family, and nearly everyone in it, from his father Ronald Sr. to his cousins Kelvim and Alcides Escobar, was done around age 30. Maybe it was genes, or maybe it was something entirely different for each that has nothing whatsoever to do with Acuña, who he is and how he intends to combat whatever befell his relations.
It is true, too, that Acuña is young and rich, and the marriage of those two qualities can be complicated and problematic, and that the highway to superstardom that he hopped aboard last season is rife with traps. Believing natural talent is enough and ignoring the value of hard work and not recognizing the necessity of evolution are chief among the traps. Mike Trout is not the Best Player In Baseball because he's the most talented. He's the Best Player In Baseball because he is the most talented and he snuffs out whatever minuscule weaknesses he might have before anyone else can find them.
Acuña is lucky enough to already have something that Trout never has had: a representative young core surrounding him. One of Acuña's best friends, second baseman Ozzie Albies, will be in Atlanta for the next nine seasons after signing a deal that is even more team-friendly than Acuña's. Freddie Freeman is the franchise linchpin at first base. Dansby Swanson is finally looking like the shortstop of the future. The Braves' young pitching talent borders on unfair. Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, both 20, aren't quite Acuña, but they are each at Double-A and look like the respective center and right fielders of the future, potential All-Stars themselves.
At the heart of it all is Acuña. He is that special, that different, spoken of in reverential terms from wizened baseball men who aren't prone to hyperbole. And it's only a year in. At the one-year mark of his career, Trout was just getting into a groove, showing that his struggles as a 19-year-old were anomalous and that his talent really was transcendent. Acuña never tripped. He was good from the jump and great soon thereafter.
Can he be more? The kid hitting those 110 mph shots in rookie ball is now a man hitting them even harder. He's already one of the best. And it might just be a matter of time before you can strike "one of" from that assessment.