Will Ronald Acuna Jr. catch Hank Aaron?
An unfair question? Maybe. But unfair to whom, Acuna or Aaron?
Aaron used every talent imaginable, including perseverance, to pass Babe Ruth to set the all-time home run record and become one of the greatest all-around players in baseball history. Acuna is off to, shall we say, an above-average start. He was National League Rookie of the Year last year, hitting 26 home runs. Acuna, like Aaron, is a multi talented player, whose power only overshadows other remarkable abilities on the baseball field. Aaron was an excellent fielder and base-runner. Only two men, Aaron and Willie Mays, hit 500 homers, had 3,000 hits and had a lifetime batting average over .300.
But let’s focus just for the moment on the home runs, because it’s the category Aaron is most known for.
And let’s focus on one single factor that makes Acuna an especially interesting figure in baseball’s never-ending quest for the ultimate hit, the four-bagger.
Of course, let’s note that Aaron is not the all-time home run leader. Although Aaron passed Ruth’s 714 home runs and finished his career with 755 homers, Barry Bonds passed Aaron and is statistically the all-time leader in homers with 762. Bonds bulked up and somehow hit more home runs as he got older than he did when he was younger, a freak occurrence in nature that Bonds has never fully explained. It’s similar to the kind of fountain-of-youth secret that players such as Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez came upon but, like Bonds, never enlightened us about as to how exactly they achieved such ageless accomplishments. That’s a shame because most people’s physical abilities tend to taper off when they get older. The world could do a lot of good if the secret of these baseball players were revealed.
So let’s just look at home runs and look at Aaron and Acuna, each of whom came up in a Braves uniform, Aaron beginning in Milwaukee, Acuna in Atlanta. SunTrust Park in Atlanta, where Acuna plays, has not gained the reputation of the “Launching Pad” that Atlanta Fulton County Stadium attained that supposedly helped Aaron, another oddity that has never been fully explained by physicsists, meteorologists, biorhythmitists or construction engineers.
Instead, let’s focus on a single factor that most people who follow such things frequently seem to overlook.
Aaron was known to have quick wrists, but Acuna also has great hand action, so there’s no great difference there. While each has played with an admirable physique, Aaron never looked as bulky as McGwire, and Acuna doesn’t resemble a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. So that’s not it. If a mammoth physical presence were the key, we’d be talking much less about Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and more about Frank Howard and Ted Kluszewski. Kluszewski, at 6-2, 225 pounds, and that’s without the weight of sleeves on his uniform, finished with 279 home runs, which is just shy of Aaron’s 755.
So what is it about Acuna that suggests he could reach levels that only Aaron heretofore reached in Atlanta?
Here’s a hint: Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees is an absolute home run superstar. In 2017, Judge clobbered 52 baseballs, winning the American League home run title and the American League Rookie of the Year Award, with exactly twice the total of homers Acuna tallied in his own Rookie of the Year season.
As the 2019 season started, Judge was 26 years old. He will turn 27 on April 26. Judge currently has a career total of 83 home runs. When Mickey Mantle was 26 years old, the age Judge is now, Mantle already had 207 home runs. The Judge admirers who All Rise when this modern phenom comes to the plate, who figure he is sure to reach the heights of Mantle and Ruth, will never see Judge play enough years to put up those kinds of numbers, unless Judge develops a sudden tight relationship with Barry Bonds.
When Ruth was 26 years old, he had 162 home runs, and Ruth had been preoccupied on the pitcher’s mound in Boston for much of that time, when he hammered a colossal four home runs in 1915, another astounding three home runs in 1916 and an unbelievable total of two home runs in 1917. Somehow, Aaron Judge’s 83 home runs don’t have the same ring to them as Ruth’s 162 at the same age.
So in this era of the launch angle and the never-mind-strikeouts-just-hit-it-out-of-the-park approach to baseball, Kris Bryant can feel good about his 94 career home runs at age 26, but the late Frank Robinson entered his age 27 season with 202 home runs. Mays at 26 had 187 home runs, and he spent an entire season in military service.
Bryce Harper is 26 years old. He has 184 home runs. When Aaron was 26, he had 219 home runs. And therein lies the factor of accurately comparing today’s superstars with the likes of Aaron, Mays, Robinson and Mantle. In an age where many players go to college, or spend years seasoning their abilities in the minor leagues, age itself is a determining factor of who can truly measure up to the career totals of the likes of Aaron and Mays.
Harper made it to the major leagues at age 19. Aaron Judge arrived at age 24. Hank Aaron made his first big-league appearance at age 20. Mantle made it at 19. Mays was 20. Robinson was 20.
Aaron hit 13 home runs in his rookie season, at age 20. After his age 21 season he had a total of 40 home runs. Acuna has just begun his age 21 season.
Bear in mind, Aaron was never one to flirt with a mammoth year like Ruth’s 60, Roger Maris’ 61, or a Mantle or Mays in the 50s. Aaron’s highest total for one season was 47 in 1971. He has said it takes more than power to put up such career numbers. Aaron has said a player has to be willing to play when it’s cold and raining. And he needs the good fortune of having batters around him in the lineup, like Rico Carty, who are good enough that opponents can’t pitch around him.
It should also be pointed out that Aaron, Mays, Robinson and company played in an era when Koufax, Marichal and Drysdale were around. One year, 1968, was deemed the year of the pitcher, with 30-game winner Denny McLain dominating, and Bob Gibson was so intimidating baseball literally lowered the mounds so batters could stand a better chance of success.
The only way a young phenom can catch the likes of Hank Aaron in home runs is to start young. Ronald Acuna Jr. arrived at the big leagues at age 20. His career total is currently 729 behind Aaron. Barring another Bonds-like fountain of youth, only players with a lot of years left in them even have a chance.