Ronald Acuña Jr. Thinks He's Got a 50-50 Season in Him

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

This story was featured in The Must Read, a newsletter in which our editors recommend one can’t-miss GQ story every weekday. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Roughly 40 stories above the Manhattan hotel ballroom where he will be honored for his 2023 N.L. MVP season, Ronald Acuña Jr. is bopping and bouncing around his suite like he just blasted a home run.

But what has the newest member of baseball’s elite 40-40 club amped on a January evening isn’t necessarily the trophy or adulation he’ll soon receive at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual awards dinner. He’s focused on the bonkers piece of jewelry he’s about to put on: a $250,000 “MVP” gold chain dotted with too many diamonds to count.

The sparkler is on brand for the 26-year-old native of Venezuela whose style on the field — swagged out with bright yellow batting gloves, cleats, and armament, chains clanging as he celebrates another moonshot—complements his spectacular talents.

“The game is always called boring, so why not make it fun?" says Acuña, the most dynamic and charismatic player in baseball. “There are many people who probably don’t appreciate some of the things [I do] or ways I act on the field. But I’ve been myself all the time.”

The 2023 NL MVP admires his hardware. (Good manicure!)

2024 BBWAA Awards Dinner

The 2023 NL MVP admires his hardware. (Good manicure!)
Mary DeCicco/Getty Images

If you don’t like it when he flexes after a bomb—then breaks out a too small taunt at second base, Euro steps rounding third, and finishes his home run trot with his favorite celebration of them all, the LeBron James-patented Silencer—you’re probably the pitcher he just tagged. If you prefer your superstars to act like they’ve been there before, and don’t appreciate the flash Acuña brings to baseball, you might be a boomer. (You’re definitely not a Braves fan.)

But if you love America’s pastime, it’s impossible not to marvel at the way Acuña has morphed from a hotshot rookie into one of the game’s most feared hitters and base stealers, or respect how the uber-confident Acuña has the audacity to say out loud what he thinks. Starting with this: that the 41 home runs he belted and 73 bases he stole in 2023, a combined total literally never reached in baseball history, were light work.

“Something I’ve never put on myself is limits,” says Acuña, who can converse in English but is more comfortable expressing himself in Spanish, via an interpreter. “I can’t promise you it’ll be this year or next year, but I believe I can attain a 50-50 season.”

The Braves right fielder has all the tools to back up his beliefs: a need-for-speed attitude on the base paths, to start, plus a swing that’s as sweet as it is vicious. (Acuña succinctly describes his swing as “Fantastic!”). He’s young, commanding the strike zone like few others, thriving under the recent rules changes, and displaying the kind of power normally reserved for bulky sluggers. If anyone can create a new club, it’s Acuña.

Which wouldn’t come as a shock to the folks in Atlanta. “I don’t think anything he’s going to do is going to surprise me,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters at the start of spring training. “He’s going to set records that he’s probably the only one who’s going to outdo ‘em.”

One of Acuña's staggering 73 stolen bases in 2023.

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves

One of Acuña's staggering 73 stolen bases in 2023.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Acuña has done it while exhibiting the kind of exuberance and opulence the other four members of MLB’s famed 40-40 club never dared. Sure, Barry Bonds pimped out plenty of home runs (and also rocked an awesome dangling earring while doing it) way before Ronald Acuña Jr. was even born. But the controversial home run king never broke out as many as five celebrations during a home run trot.

That’s perhaps the biggest reason to get excited about what the otherwise reserved Acuña represents: he’s injecting baseball and its marathon regular season with desperately needed doses of flair. He will not apologize for showing off his more playful side after making the difficult task of squaring up a round bat with a round ball look way too easy.

“When you are in the moment, your body just does what it wants,” says Acuña. “You show everyone the true you, and to be honest, you just don't care when the adrenaline is pumping."

But he has toned down the antics over the years. “I used to do worse things,” Acuña says, chuckling. “I used to talk to the fans. Screaming at the other team, at everybody. I had to make an adjustment or they were going to peg me every time.”

For the same reason, he kept his most demonstrative jewelry in his locker when he got to the bigs, afraid he’d come off as arrogant and not taking the game seriously. That, of course, has changed: Acuña is reliably one of the more iced-out players in an increasingly jewelry-friendly league. “I started wearing chains because I wanted to be different,” Acuña explains. “Many said wearing diamonds or chains in baseball was too flashy and not meant to be used in play. I never understood why because it never slowed me down, and I wanted to represent myself in a way many weren't.”

Entering his seventh season, the only thing missing from an already ultra-impressive résumé is a signature October moment. Acuña was injured during Atlanta’s World Series run three seasons ago with a torn ACL, and the team flamed out early the last two seasons. Yes, he has a ring, but watching from the sidelines was a humbling experience. Having baseball taken away for the first time in his life, and briefly questioning if he’d ever be the same player again, made Acuña change his approach to the game and promise to “never take the good for granted.” Which is why his pursuit of a 50-50 campaign isn’t the only interesting Acuña-related storyline entering the 2024 season.

Acuña was injured during the Braves' 2021 World Series run—so he's got a ring, but is eager for another.

Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves

Acuña was injured during the Braves' 2021 World Series run—so he's got a ring, but is eager for another.
Adam Hagy/Getty Images

Because, by baseball’s current economic standards, Acuña is comically underpaid. The going rate for a player of his caliber is in the neighborhood of $40 million a year. But in 2019, fresh off winning Rookie of the Year, Acuña signed an eight-year, $100 million deal that provided immense financial security at a discounted rate for the Braves.

And while Acuña’s previously said he doesn’t regret signing it—$100 million is, duh, an absurd amount of money—he knows his talent is worth exponentially more.

“I believed it was going to better my situation,” Acuña says of the contract. “Everybody was going to be better, my family, I was going to be more stable. I definitely thought it was a great moment. But I believe this is the time to get a new contract and be a Brave for life.”

Compared to the deals baseball’s best have signed in recent offseasons, Acuña makes peanuts. Yankees slugger Aaron Judge inked a massive 9-year, $360 million deal after the 2022 season while the astronomical 10-year, $700 million deal Shohei Ohtani signed with the Dodgers this past December made him the highest paid athlete in the world. (Of course, he’s a perennial Cy Young-contending pitcher when healthy.) Imagine what baseball’s premier leadoff hitter could command on the open market.

“I’m already thinking about it,” says Acuña. “I’m just going to keep pushing and working hard to get that contract that is much deserved.”

While oddsmakers installed him as the favorite to repeat as N.L. MVP, expecting Acuña to surpass last season’s numbers—he led baseball in runs, hits, total bases, on-base percentage, and stolen bases—is, of course, unfair. But as long as he stays off the injured list and continues to see pitches setting the table in Atlanta’s stacked lineup, a 50-50 season is totally reasonable. The sport’s recent rules changes clearly help Acuña swipe enough bags. Bumping his home run total to 50 would be a foreboding task for just about anyone but Acuña, who has yet to find a baseball-related obstacle he can’t hurdle.

Back in his hotel suite, decked out in a tux 99 percent of ballplayers would never dare to wear, Acuña is ready to head downstairs and collect his hardware after taking pictures like it's prom. Proudly showing off his pricey “MVP” piece, you can't knock the smile off his face. If there are any nerves about the speech he has to give later, nobody can tell. Reflecting on the journey from the streets of Venezuela to superstar status, Acuña will deliver his words with a few poignant pauses while the chain dazzles—a beautifully blinged-out reminder of a year unlike any other. And should he pull off the unprecedented for a second straight season, you already know how he’s celebrating.

“I’d have to make another one,” Acuña says with a grin.

Originally Appeared on GQ