Welcome to the Aristides Aquino Show

The Reds’ rookie outfielder is taking Major League Baseball by storm. Here’s why the flash might last.
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Last November, Aristides Aquino’s baseball career was at a crossroads. He had just been non-tendered by the Cincinnati Reds and dropped from the club’s 40-man roster. He was a free agent, and any team in Major League Baseball could have signed him.

 

Despite the low price, interest around baseball in Aquino’s services was not high. There was good reason for that; as a 24-year-old in Double-A in 2018, he’d hit just .240/.306/.448. The year before, also at Double-A Pensacola, his slash line had been even worse: .216/.282/.397. Sure, Aquino hit 37 home runs over those two seasons, but at an age when real prospects generally blossom he was scuffling.

Shortly thereafter, Aquino chose to stay with Cincinnati, signing a minor league contract as he hoped to salvage something from a once-promising baseball career that had hit the skids. Fewer than nine months later, Aristides Aquino is a Cincinnati Reds legend.

Well, maybe that’s overstating the case, but only by a little. After Yasiel Puig was traded to Cleveland, Aquino was called up. He looked tentative and maybe a little overmatched at first, going 0 for 6 in his first two games, striking out three times and flailing at pitches outside the zone. In his third game, however, Aquino singled in the second inning against Atlanta for his first big league hit. He hasn’t stopped since, posting a slash line to date of .429/.474/1.143 with eight home runs and 16 RBI.

The home runs are what have captured the baseball world’s attention. Living up to his nickname of “The Punisher,” Aquino hit his first homer in that same game against Atlanta. Later in the week, he hit home runs in four consecutive games, culminating in a weekend contest against the Cubs in which he hit three bombs in consecutive innings. He was the first rookie ever to accomplish that feat, and only the second ever to have a three home run game within his first 10 career games. Aquino also tied Trevor Story for most home runs by a rookie in their first 10 games, with seven.

One of the homers in that game against Chicago had an exit velocity of 118.3 mph, as measured by Statcast. That mark represented the hardest-hit ball by a Red that’s ever been recorded (though that data goes back to just 2015). It also tied for the hardest-hit ball of the 2019 season among all teams. Even better, Aquino uncorked a throw from right field to third base against the Cubs that was recorded at 101.5 mph—the hardest throw from the outfield recorded in MLB this season.

Is there anything this kid can’t do all of a sudden? It’s been quite a debut, and I’m almost breathless as I recount it. In his first full week as a big leaguer, Aquino won the National League’s Player of the Week award, but if you thought he was finished you were sorely mistaken. A couple of nights later, Aquino hit yet another dinger, becoming the first player in the history of baseball to club eight longballs in his first 12 big league games.

How did Aquino rise from being non-tendered to setting big league records in the span of a few months? It’s a story of hard work, a great attitude, and good things happening to good people.

This spring, Aquino worked hard with Reds hitting coach Turner Ward and, especially, assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker to adjust his stance and approach at the plate. They watched video, took round after round of batting practice, and emerged with a completely redesigned open stance that has Aquino standing in the batters box with his chest facing the pitcher as he begins his windup. Aquino describes it like this: “I changed my stance so I could be better at recognizing the pitches. That helped me to have more balance and see better pitches. I’ve got better balance in my body. It helps me to hit the ball.”

That’s an understatement. The results were immediately apparent, as Aquino hit .360 this spring, but Reds management really began to sit up and take notice when he arrived at Triple-A Louisville to begin the season. There, Aquino hit .299/.356/.636 (a 143 wRC+) with 28 homers. In his final week (ever?) at Triple-A, he became the first Louisville Bat to to hit a homer in four consecutive games.

Obviously, he hasn’t skipped a beat since bringing The Aquino Show to the majors, but the big question is whether 2019 Aristides is the real version or if he’s closer to the player we’ve seen the last two years, the player who was freely available to any team that wanted him after last season. I’m generally skeptical about players who make a sudden jump in performance being able to sustain that level of production over the long-term. Aquino is not going to continue his torrid home run hitting—he’s on pace for 108 home runs over a full season, which would probably be a record, right?—but after what we’ve seen in Triple-A and the majors this year, I’m actually a little optimistic that he can be a productive big leaguer.

There are three primary reasons I’m hopeful:

Aquino has a history of being a productive player. He wasn’t great in either of the last two seasons, but in 2016 Aquino was the Florida State League Player of the Year after posting a 143 wRC+ with a slash line of .273/.327/.519 with 23 homers for Class-A Daytona. That same year, he was named the Reds’ Minor League Player of the Year. He was also pretty good in rookie ball, even if he was never able to put everything together. So he does have a bit of a pedigree and has experienced success as a professional.

He’s coachable, and this year’s results are directly correlated to a drastic swing change. JJ Cooper is the Executive Editor of Baseball America, a guy who’s been writing about and scouting amateur and minor league players for many years. You should read his mini-thread about Aquino, but what interested me were the notes he took while watching Aquino all the way back in 2013, when he was just 19 years old.

He’s another one who has to learn to pace himself. Very hard worker. Sometimes I think he overdid it at points. His energy waned because of it. That cost him in Billings. First time in front of crowds. Adrenaline. What a special talent. Talk about his makeup. Very intelligent. Right on top of it. Makes adjustments at plate, realizes what pitchers are trying to do to him.

Everyone around the Reds, including his teammates, rave about Aquino’s attitude, work ethic, and coachability. He’s exactly the type of player you want to root for.

Even the name is legendary. Say it aloud with me: Aristides Aquino. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Truthfully, I don’t know whether Aquino is a flash in the pan who will burn brightly for a little while and then settle back into being a guy who might be a power bat off the bench … or if he might be the solution to the Reds gaping hole in right field for 2020. Only time will tell. For now, let’s just enjoy the show.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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