Strikeouts a major reason for Acuña Jr.'s slow start

May 3—What in the wide world of Atlanta Braves baseball has happened to last year's National League Most Valuable Player?

Yes, he is healthy and batting leadoff for the N.L. East Division leaders, but Ronald Acuña Jr. has not looked like himself through the first month of the season. There has to be someone else masquerading as Acuña, wearing No. 13, flashing the speed on the bases and smiling out in right field. He has yet to flash the MVP form that was evident all of last season.

Entering this weekend series at the L.A. Dodgers, Acuña Jr. was among the league leaders with 29 runs and 13 stolen bases. But what is concerning is the .252 average, one home run and seven RBIs. This coming from a player who batted .337 with 41 homers and 106 RBIs en route to the first MVP of his career last season.

Maybe most eye-opening among Acuña's stats is the category he actually improved in last year and was a big reason why he was so successful at the plate. Through 29 games, Acuña Jr. has struck out 38 times. That is on pace for 212 for the season, compared to just 84 all of last year.

He has regressed to the part of his game that is his biggest knock. Acuña Jr. is a career .290 hitter, but he has struck out more than 120 times three times, including 188 in 2019. He also struck out 60 times in just 46 games during the COVID-shortened year in 2020. He is the best and most feared leadoff hitter in the game ... when he is on base. He is a threat to steal and score from any base on the field.

A strikeout negates all of that fear, however. When he isn't on base, the Braves are not the same, and it has shown recently. Prior to Wednesday's 5-2 win over the Mariners, the Braves had only scored 27 runs in their prior eight games. Yes, they went 5-3 over that stretch but it was mostly due to a pitching staff and starting rotation that is the MVP of the season so far.

Acuña Jr. needs to cut down on his many whiffs. He has likely been lapped in the MVP chase with as good of a start as Mookie Betts has had, so barring an epic collapse and unbelievable turnaround, Acuña Jr. will not repeat. But his eliminating the strikeouts will be the key to the Braves chasing another division and National League title. I'll settle for that.