It happened again. Atlanta Braves’ All-World right-fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. was plunked by a fastball on Monday afternoon.
It wasn’t just any pitch, of course; It was recorded as a 93 mph four-seam fastball thrown by Tylor Megill.
That actually wasn’t the fastest pitch Megill threw yesterday… the prior offering was listed at 95 mph, and he topped out at 96.7 mph on the day.
It also seemed a bit odd as a “purpose” pitch, coming on an 0-2 count after two fastballs essentially down the middle of the plate. But maybe that was part of a disguise, somehow?
This pitch was well in and well up… essentially at head-level. It’s that location that certainly gets the attention of Acuna and the entire Atlanta bench contingent.
For his part, Acuna thought the incident was intentional, but let’s look at some recent history about such attacks on Acuna… and others… and see if there’s any noteworthy trends.
The Plunkdom Chronicles
Starting with the 2019 season, there’s one undisputed holder of the title “Human Backstop Target”. That’s Anthony Rizzo. in 2103 plate appearance to date, he’s been whacked eighty-eight times with pitches… better than once every 24 trips to the plate, a solid rate of more than once per week.
Sneaking up on Rizzo, though, might be Tim Locastro. While he “only” has 39 thumps to his body, they came in a scant 544 plate appearances… an astonishing rate of once in less than 14 trips to the dish.
22 of those 39 HBP’s against Locastro came as a Diamondback in 2019. He literally has gotten on base more often by getting hit than by taking walks… 39 to 33 in his scant MLB career.
Acuna, for his part, ranks 22nd in baseball with 35 HBP’s in these last 4+ seasons. You might be surprised to know that this means Acuna doesn’t even have the leading amount on his own team.
That distinction belongs to Austin Riley, who’s been victimized 36 times over that period. You might think Acuna has a higher rate of HBP than Riley, given all the time he missed in 2021, but not so.
Riley has only 43 more PA’s: 1984 to 1941. Thus, Riley’s hit rate in once for every 55.11 plate appearances… Ronnie is rubbing his wounds once every 55.46 PA’s.
Curiously, it’s the Mets that carry the team title for bruisings. Since 2019, current teammates Mark Canha (2nd with 63), Starling Marte (6th at 53), Pete Alonso (7th), and Jeff McNeil (9th) all rank solidly in the top 10. Brandon Nimmo is 23rd. That almost sounds like it’s engrained into their culture.
Naturally, Tim Locastro is currently a Met as well.
So it isn’t like Ronald is getting abused more than any one else… though of all the hitters in baseball, he is still getting hit a lot by comparison. So let’s go a little deeper.
It’s not about “if”, but “when”
Here’s a breakdown of exactly when during games that Acuna is being hit:
- In 2023: 2 HBP. One came with only 1st base open and the Braves already leading 6-4 in the bottom of the 8th. The other was Megill.
- In 2022: 3 HBP. All of them came as the leadoff hitter in an inning (1st, 3rd, and 9th… the latter as the Braves were trailing 8-1).
- In 2021: 9 times overall in just the first half of the season. 6 times as a leadoff hitter; 3 of those in the 1st inning. Two of the other instances came with 2 outs and a runner already on base; the other with one out and no one on in a 1-0 game.
- In 2020: (Short season). 4 plunks… one of those by Charlie Morton to open a game. The other 3 instances came with no one on base, but 1 or 2 outs in the inning in the midst of close games.
- In 2019: 9 whacks…4 times with runners already on base in the middle of a game, but the other five came as an inning’s leadoff hitter… in either the first or 3rd innings.
If you’re trying to send a message to Acuna as a pitcher, then it makes most sense to do it as a leadoff hitter… or at least, it used to be the case.
This season, that may not be wise at all, given that he leads the world in steals with 13… though Megill managed to avoid turning the HBP into something more damaging by actually injuring Acuna and driving him out of the game.
In any case, the majority of Acuna’s HBP’s are coming with him leading off an inning. Certainly that flies in the face of calling this a “random event”.
It would be difficult to characterize Acuna’s plight vs. that of all other “leaders” on the HBP chart (that’s just due to the size of the task), though perhaps Mark Canha’s logs from 2022 (to pick one semi-random player and season) might be instructive.
In 2022, Canha was hit 28 times. 8 times, this occurred as a leadoff hitter. 10 times, there was 1 out, 4 times came with 2 outs, and 6 other times there was a runner already on base with none out. But that’s nowhere near a majority of instances as a leadoff guy.
Since Austin Riley is the club leader since 2019 started, it makes sense to check some of his at-bat-impacts as well. In 2022, he was hit 17 times. Never did that happen as a leadoff hitter of an inning.
In only three cases was Riley hit when none were out last year. Every time, there were runners already on base… and once it drove in a run!
So yeah… Acuna appears to be getting “special treatment” at times. The Braves probably should pay attention to that to protect him where they can, for his play is clearly healping sustain them, and another long-term injury could be devastating to their season.
Oh, and the Marlins are up next. *Sigh*
All stats cited provided via fangraphs.com