If you believe Don Mattingly, the Marlins are not trying to hit Ronald Acuña. They are simply trying to work him inside so they can free up the outside part of the plate. This seems reasonable given that most teams employ this strategy and all teams would like to avoid having him hit a 450′ bomb to right center. The only problem with the Marlins’ plan of attack is that they apparently suck at executing it.
They’ve hit him 5 times. 4 of those 5 times were at maximum velocity from the Marlins’ starter. The most recent example was 98 MPH from Sandy Alacantara, and intentional or not, if it’s your butt cheek getting plunked with a 98 MPH fastball, you might be a little upset too. The question remains, are they seriously TRYING to hit Acuña?
The short answer, for me, is no. If this was a police investigation we’d be discussing whether to charge the Marlins with either criminally negligent homicide or premeditated murder. I believe Mattingly when he says they aren’t trying to hit him, but I don’t believe they view him being hit by a pitch as a negative outcome. I certainly think that the instruction to their pitchers is that if they are going to miss with that pitch, miss into his back pocket. Bold strategy, right? Let’s dive in a bit deeper to see if there is any value to that line of logic.
bust him in
There’s a reason teams want to work Ronald Acuña, Jr inside. Check out a couple of heat maps from Baseball Savant. The first one is the Exit Velocity of contact based on where the pitch is located:
Obviously Acuña crushes, nay, obliterates pitches middle of the plate and away unless you can elevate. By comparison, you are more likely to get weaker contact if you can live on the inner third of the plate. There is value to the theory that if he has a hole in his swing, it’s inside. You can’t just simply flip pitches in there, though. This next chart shows that even though he may not hit the ball as hard he can still hurt you:
So if you are going to work him in, it’s probably best to either elevate the pitch or bury it in off the plate. Pitching up in the zone is coming back into vogue, and as you can see from the above chart that’s probably the best place to pitch Acuña right now. He hasn’t had a hit up there all season. With all that said, although it seems obvious that you need to work him either inside or at the top of the zone, it does little good if he won’t swing at the pitch, right? Here is Ronald Acuña’s swing profile on pitches by zone:
He rarely chases in off the plate. That’s an underrated part of his game. He may drive you crazy with strikeouts, but he has obviously built his approach at swinging only at pitches he can do damage with. That also means giving up the inner 1/3rd of the plate and spitting at balls above his hands. He’s a tough guy to work to, which speaks to his success in his young career, and if he has any holes in his swing it just happens to coincide with areas that are difficult to pitch effectively to. It’s got to be frustrating.
If we hit him, we hit him
If your goal is to push Ronald off the plate so that you can come back to the outside edge and be more effective, well, he’s proven that is his nitro zone so it probably won’t work anyway. What I think the Marlins are truly trying to do is to get into his head and have him thinking about retaliation instead of just having a solid approach at the plate. Does that work? Is it possible that hitting Acuña can actually have a lasting effect in a series? Let’s take a look at the five times he’s been hit by the Marlins, and how he responded:
8/15/18 Jose Ureña 97.5 MPH FB – Ronald Acuña had hit a homer in 5 straight games, 3 HR in two games against the Marlins, and was on fire. Ureña hit him with the first pitch of the game with the hardest thrown pitch he had thrown all season. That ended the streak as Acuña was forced to exit. Braves went on to win that game 5-2, and the entire team was fired up by the event, including Brian Snitker who lost his mind that Ureña was allowed to continue in the game.
8/23/18 Javy Guerra 93.9 MPH FB – Ronnie was 1-3 with a HR in the first game of the very next series the Braves played against the Marlins after the Ureña incident. Guerra, in relief of Elieser Hernandez, rushed him in with an 0-2 fastball and Acuña spiked his helmet, obviously frustrated that he had been hit yet again. He went on to go 5-13 with 2 doubles, no HR, and 2 k’s, so he really wasn’t too affected by it, but the Braves DID lose two of those three games that came after the HBP.
8/20/19 Elieser Hernandez – The very next time Elieser Hernandez saw Ronald Acuña after he hit a mammoth HR off of him (the game that Guerra plunked him), his first pitch ends up in the small of Acuña’s back at 87 MPH. This was the last series of the season with the Marlins, just like the last time RAJ got plunked, and he ended up going 3-14 at the plate with a double and a HR, striking out 3 times.
9/7/20 Jose Ureña (again) – At this point it’s getting ridiculous. This one didn’t seem to be intentional in any way, but at this point there is reason to wonder if hitting him doesn’t affect him negatively going forward in a series. Acuña goes 3-16 for the series after being hit yet again with a double and a HR and 3 strikeouts, and the Braves lose two of those three games.
10/6/20 Sandy Alcantara – Ronald Acuña leads off the NLDS with a bomb to right center field on a fastball on the outer 1/3rd of the plate. Next AB, after getting strike 1 on an offspeed pitch, Alcantara rushes one in at 98 MPH and drills Acuña right in the hip pocket. Fireworks ensued, predictably, and Ronnie scores from 1st on a double to left, firing up the team in the process. He finished the game 2-4, but the sequence of events early in the game seemed to lead directly to a key strikeout with 2 on and 2 out in the 5th by Ronald.
While the results are mixed, it’s obvious that Mattingly and his staff seem to be ok with hitting Ronald Acuña, even if it’s not strictly intentional. It helps matters significantly that now every time they do it the umpires warn both sides and there can be no retaliation by Atlanta. It also inhibits everyone’s ability to pitch inside for fear of one getting away accidentally and getting players tossed. I wouldn’t expect this philosophy to change, and at some point the Braves are going to have to address the issue regardless of the consequences.
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