Checking In on the NL MVP Race: Can Anyone Catch Ronald Acuña Jr.?

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

June 23, 2023, was a rough day for the Braves. They scored 10 runs but gave up 11 in a hard-fought battle with the Reds. It was the first time they’d given up more than ten runs all season, and the first time they’d scored double-digit runs and still lost in over a year. They blew two leads and couldn’t quite pull off the comeback at the end of the night.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, June 23, 2023, was an insignificant day for the Braves. By that point in the season, their playoff odds were 99.5%. Sure, they lost the game, but it was one of only four losses they would suffer all month. They went on to win the series and sweep their next two, increasing their playoff odds to 100% within the week. The Braves have about as much reason to worry about losses as I have to worry about werewolf attacks. It’s not worth agonizing over something that only happens once in a blue moon.

But for one particular Brave, June 23, 2023, was an excellent day. Ronald Acuña Jr. went 3-for-5 with a home run and a stolen base. He made a great catch, too, covering 78 feet in 4.6 seconds to rob Tyler Stephenson of a hit. The following morning, he rose to first place in the National League in WAR, a position he has held ever since.

First place on the WAR leaderboard isn’t necessarily meaningfully different from second, third, or even fourth. At times, Acuña’s lead was so slight that you had to add another decimal place just to see it. Still, leading the league for 53 days (and counting) is an impressive accomplishment. Plenty of guys can get hot and amass a high WAR in a short stretch, but maintaining such a high degree of excellence over eight weeks is something else. Four others occupied second place in that time, and nine shuffled through spots three to five. But Acuña has yet to give up his lead.

By the All-Star break, Acuña had cemented himself as the clear favorite for NL MVP. He had arguably been the favorite for most of the season already, but by that point, it was difficult to make a case for anyone else. Jayson Stark of The Athletic picked Acuña as his first-half NL MVP. So did Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, Matt Snyder of CBS Sports, and all 47 reporters and analysts surveyed for their monthly MVP poll. Honestly, I’d challenge you to find a single reputable source that picked anyone other than Acuña; you might not even be able to find an anonymous troll on Twitter who made the case for anyone else.

Needless to say, the BBWAA doesn’t actually award midseason MVPs. Still, it’s helpful to be the frontrunner this late into the year. Once a player has cemented himself as the favorite, it can be hard to unseat him. Consider some of the closest MVP races in recent memory. In last year’s NL race, nine players finished within one win of the top spot. But it was Paul Goldschmidt who established himself as the midseason favorite and who ultimately took home the hardware. It was a similar situation in 2019 in both leagues. Cody Bellinger versus Christian Yelich and Mike Trout versus Alex Bregman made for a couple of close races, but it was the midseason favorites, Bellinger and Trout, who came out on top. It’s a classic case of primacy bias feeding confirmation bias. Humans are better at remembering the first pieces of information we encounter. We’re also better at remembering information that supports our preconceived notions. In other words, once you get it in your head that a particular player deserves the MVP, it’s not easy to shake that notion.

All that being said, there’s a meaningful difference between an obvious frontrunner and a surefire victor. Shohei Ohtani, for example, could spend the rest of the season picking dandelions in the outfield and still walk away as the AL MVP. Conversely, Acuña would probably win the NL MVP if the season ended today, and there’s a good chance he’d win unanimously, too, but that doesn’t mean the competition is open and shut. With 45 games left to go in the regular season, there is ample time for a new frontrunner to emerge.

Freddie Freeman is in the midst of the best full season of his career. Ignoring his 2020 MVP campaign, his .421 wOBA, .418 xwOBA, and 170 wRC+ are all career highs. He recently passed his career high in stolen bases, too, and is on pace to blow past his career-best 7.1 WAR. He currently sits just a tenth of a win behind Acuña. Suffice it to say, that’s not a significant difference.

Mookie Betts is not in the midst of a career-best season, but that’s hardly a knock against him. After all, he already has a 10.5-WAR campaign on the back of his sabermetric baseball card. Only two players have had a better season in the 21st century: Barry Bonds and Aaron Judge. Still, Betts is having his best season since 2018, with a .968 OPS and a 159 wRC+. He’s on pace for 8.2 WAR, which would have led the Senior Circuit in every full season since 2015. He’s been trailing Acuña and Freeman for the past couple of weeks, but he only needs one big game to take the lead.

Freeman and Betts are Acuña’s biggest competition, but a few more players could enter the race with a huge performance down the stretch. Ha-Seong Kim currently leads the league in bWAR, and while he’s a ways behind Acuña, Freeman, and Betts on our leaderboard, he still ranks sixth in the NL. His case is based on his phenomenal defense, however, and defense alone is rarely enough to win an MVP. That said, if he can continue to hit at a torrid pace (he has a 170 wRC+ in his last 51 games), he could cause some trouble for the fronrtunners. Meanwhile, Bellinger has been on fire as of late. If he hadn’t missed a month with a knee contusion, he could very well be in this race; with 3.9 WAR in 87 games, he’s playing at a 7.3 WAR/162 pace. He has a 203 wRC+ and an NL-best 2.8 WAR since the start of July, and if he keeps that up, he could make things interesting, too.

Corbin Carroll, Sean Murphy, and Fernando Tatis Jr. were all contenders in the early months of the season, but they’ve fallen off the pace as of late. Then there are the likes of Matt Olson, Juan Soto, and Francisco Lindor hanging out in the four-WAR zone. Olson has the best shot thanks to his league-leading 43 home runs and 107 RBI, but he’s still trailing Freeman and Acuña in most other offensive categories. All three would need to play some of the best baseball of their lives over the next seven weeks to enter the race, and they’d have to hope the frontrunners cooled off, too. Still, it’s all within the realm of possibility. On this date in 2021, Tatis led the NL with 5.2 WAR, with Bryce Harper ranking eighth with 4.0 and Soto tenth with 3.8. The latter two would finish ahead of Tatis in WAR and MVP voting.

WAR is a fantastic tool for this kind of conversation; it helps us identify and categorize MVP contenders, and separates the leading candidates from those on the outside looking in — and those without a prayer. But when it comes to the guys at the very top of the leaderboard, it’s critical to look beyond WAR. It’s only an estimate, after all, and a few decimal points of WAR don’t provide much useful information. So now that I’ve identified the top contenders, I want to take a closer look at how they stack up to one another:

NL MVP Candidates: Offensive Comparison
Player wRC+ xwOBA WPA WPA/LI HR K% BsR
Ronald Acuña Jr. 167 .454 4.70 4.62 26 12.3% 5.2
Mookie Betts 159 .405 4.35 4.64 31 16.1% 2.5
Freddie Freeman 170 .418 4.05 5.40 23 16.6% 4.2

It’s immediately apparent that Acuña and Freeman have the edge offensively, but there are a few points in Betts’ favor. He’s outpacing Freeman in WPA and has a slight lead over Acuña in the context-neutral WPA/LI. On top of that, he has an advantage in some of the more traditional statistical categories; his 31 home runs rank third in the NL, five more than Acuña and eight more than Freeman. He also leads Acuña in RBI, although the number of voters for whom that matters is dwindling.

Working against Betts is his hesitancy to swipe an extra bag. He’s an average runner and consistently an excellent baserunner, yet he’s stealing less often than ever despite the new rules. He’s faster than Freeman and usually a much more valuable runner, but this year his Dodgers teammate has stolen twice as many bases, and thus his BsR is significantly higher. Betts was never going to compete with Acuña on the bases, but he might have a couple extra decimals points of WAR if he made better use of his legs.

As for Freeman and Acuña, it’s clear that they’re neck and neck. Freeman has had slightly better results at the plate, but Acuña has the edge in baserunning, clutch performance, and quality of contact. Personally, I don’t think WPA should play a role in MVP voting, but I understand why others disagree. Clutch hitting isn’t a repeatable skill, and WPA is heavily influenced by the opportunities a hitter has happened to have. At the same time, it does describe how much a batter has contributed to his team’s efforts to win, a perfectly reasonable criterion for a Most Valuable Player award.

Conversely, I recognize why expected stats are controversial when it comes to awards, but I don’t think we should ignore them entirely. They’re not a replacement for any other stat, but they provide context for launch angle and exit velocity, two of the most important things a hitter can control. Acuña and Freeman have had similar results at the plate this year, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the former has made better quality contact.

One final point in Acuña’s favor is his strikeout rate, the fourth-lowest in the NL and easily the best of his career. Offensive metrics like wOBA and wRC+ consider each different way a batter can reach base, but they don’t distinguish between types of outs. By and large, this doesn’t make much of a difference; every kind of out has its pros and cons, so they balance each other out. WAR, however, penalizes (or rewards) batters for grounding into double plays through BsR, which throws off the math. Acuña strikes out less often than Freeman, giving him more opportunities to make a productive out, and he deserves a bit of extra credit for that, too.

Now for the defense:

NL MVP Candidates: Defensive Comparison
Ronald Acuña Jr. -5 0 2 -1.7 8 -7.8
Mookie Betts -1 0 6 -0.4 2.7 0.1
Freddie Freeman -1 -1 -6 1.1 -1.9 -8.3

Acuña’s defensive value depends on which metrics you prefer, and ultimately, it comes down to how much you think his excellent arm outweighs his poor jumps and mediocre routes. Things are simpler with Freeman: he’s just an average first baseman. He isn’t a liability at first, nor is he providing any value with his glove. Acuña and Freeman have a similar DEF, but in such a situation, I’m usually inclined to favor the player who fields the more difficult position.

Meanwhile, Betts is the superior defender by most metrics. It’s why he’s in this conversation despite having slightly worse offensive numbers than his competitors. He has average range and an above-average arm, and his flexibility is an asset, too. Indeed, the numbers don’t do justice to his versatility. He’s been worth -2 OAA at shortstop, but it hardly seems fair to penalize him for his willingness to fill in at a position of need for his team. No one would hold it against him if he accumulated negative pitching WAR in a blowout, and his 16 games at shortstop fall into a similar category.

If I had to make a decision today, I’d go with Acuña first, Betts second, and Freeman third. It’s impossibly close, but Acuña and Betts each have a couple of tie-breaking points in their favor. Freeman is having a remarkable season too, but the way I see it, a slugging first baseman really has to outslug the competition to put himself over the top. Thankfully, no one has to cast a ballot just yet. The race is close enough that things could change almost every day down the stretch.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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9 months ago

Seems worth mentioning that fWAR uses the version of OAA that doesn’t include Acuna’s arm metric. If you include his Baseball Savant arm metric he gets an extra half-win. Not sure why that’s not included in fWAR today…

9 months ago
Reply to  tdees40

They do use an arm metric, just not baseballsavant’s. They still use UZR’s arm portion.

9 months ago
Reply to  asianbrave

Right, you can’t just look at OAA. You have to look at OAA and ARM for outfielders or OAA and DPR for infielders.

If you look at Def (you get both inputs but also the positional adjustment, which may make it more or less useful depending on your purposes)

Last edited 9 months ago by sadtrombone
Cool Lester Smoothmember
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

You can also look at Fld at the very bottom of the page!

9 months ago
Reply to  tdees40

Add those arms!