In the wake of last night’s chaotic mess of a baseball game, culminating in a 7-6 victory for the St. Louis Cardinals over the Atlanta Braves, no player has garnered more attention than Ronald Acuna Jr., the young Braves superstar who managed three hits for seven total bases, an additional walk to lead off the bottom of the first inning for the Braves, and a diving catch while playing in center field, a position he is only playing because of injuries to Ender Inciarte. But the headlines were about Acuna’s limitations rather than his tremendous success last night.
There is a lot to sort out here with regards to Acuna, and so I’ll do the best I can.
1. He stared at a home run ball that turned out to not be a home run. That was a bad idea.—I’m on the record as something of an apathetic towards bat flips, slow home run trots, and other signs of demonstrative showmanship. I don’t mind bat flips, but I don’t find them particularly interesting—their primary societal benefit, I think, is how much they annoy the absolute worst people in the world. But the thing about them is: you better be sure you hit a home run. Acuna still hit a single, but had he run out of the batter’s box, it would’ve been a double. This is far more egregious than, say, Yadier Molina not hustling out of the box on a lazy ground ball where he would need a wide throw to reach first base anyway and his effort would probably be a net negative once injury risk is considered. I understand the hesitation to criticize Acuna, given the kinds of people who typically profit off ripping lazy millennials who are too busy thinking about avocado toast who would normally be leading the charge. But he should’ve been running.
2. His teammates have every right to be annoyed at him, but they shouldn’t have said so publicly.—A diverse crowd has critiqued Acuna’s lack of hustle: Oklahoman pitcher Dallas Keuchel, Californian first baseman Freddie Freeman, and Ozzie Albies, a nearly decade younger Venezuelan infielder, have criticized Acuna. And while I agree with their point, what are they trying to prove here? Say what you will about Acuna’s lack of focus in the moment—you can tell that in the immediate aftermath, he knew he messed up. Why increase attention paid to the story? If the press asks you about the play, just say Acuna made a mistake but that he’s a good kid, extremely talented, and will learn from it (all of these things are probably true, and the middle one definitely is).
3. His home run in the 9th inning is why you don’t remove him from the game after his unforced error.—Some called for Braves manager Brian Snitker to bench Acuna after his double-turned-single. This would have been, in a hotly contested game in a best-of-five series, insane. At some point, Acuna needs to be addressed, but in the moment, he is absolutely helping your team.
4. I’d be mad if I were Carlos Martinez, too.—The Cardinals closer was visibly annoyed by Ronald Acuna’s home run trot, but if we are being honest, he was annoyed by Acuna’s home run itself. I would be too. He cut Atlanta’s deficit in half and you play to win the game.
5. At some point, we are going to have to decide which Carlos Martinez we want.—When Carlos Martinez is goofing around in the dugout, stacking water cups and splashing water on home run hitters, he is lackadaisical and doesn’t care enough about winning. When he gets mad about a poor pitching performance, he can’t control his emotions and he cares too much. Frankly, I prefer the former, but I’ll happily look the other way on the latter when it’s Chris Carpenter or John Lackey or one of countless other baseball red-asses, as long as they get results. Obviously, Martinez didn’t last night. That’s a problem. But generally, he has. So he still has a lot of goodwill built up.
6. The alternative to getting mad at Carlos Martinez is getting mad at some other Cardinals thing.—In the Internet age, especially, there is an increased need to back up all opinions with evidence. Most of the time, this is a good thing—if you are going to claim an event of political or social significance is happening, you shouldn’t have carte blanche to make things up. But if your opinion is “I don’t like this baseball team”, you don’t need a reason. I have objective reasons to hate the Chicago Cubs—their continued employment of Addison Russell, for one—but I hated them before Russell was a Cubs player. And I’ll still hate them once he’s gone. Baseball fandom is arbitrary and stupid and so is hatred of teams. National hatred of the Cardinals isn’t steeped in evidence, nor does it have to be. But we feel the need to validate our opinions. “Carlos Martinez is yet another in a long line of Cardinals behavior scolds” (he isn’t). “Cardinals fans yelled racial slurs at Jason Heyward when he came back to St. Louis” (they didn’t, or at least neither TV cameras nor he himself picked up on it). “The Cardinals are a uniquely evil organization whose worldview runs contrary to mine” (well, no moreso than basically any other MLB team). Those who detest the Cardinals aren’t going to change; they’re going to keep rationalizing it. Frankly, this is funnier than just saying “because I do” when asked why they hate the Cardinals.