Ronald Acuna Jr. Should Be NL MVP – Real Race Is For Second Place

We’re in the last week of the regular season, so it’s time to take a hard look at the Cy Young and MVP races in both leagues. I’ve already looked at the NL and AL Cy Young races. Today, let’s look at the NL MVP chase.

If you’re new to my work, I take a slightly different approach to evaluation of current season performance. It’s a purely analytical approach, and relies on batted ball data. I simply take every batted ball hit by every batting title-qualified MLB hitter, and calculate the damage they “should have” allowed based on their exit speed/launch angle mix. That’s expressed by their Adjusted Contact Score – 100 equals league average, the higher the number the better. I then add back the Ks and BBs to determine each hitter’s “Tru” Production+, and then spread it across their plate appearance bulk to determine their “Tru” Batting Runs Above Average. Lastly, I add in Fangraphs’ baserunning and defensive runs into the mix, resulting in “Tru” Player Runs Above Average (TPRAA). My first interim look at this race took place in early August, with Ronald Acuna Jr. out in front.

While using replacement level as a baseline typically makes sense when doing most kinds of player evaluation, I find league average to be quite useful in evaluating elite performance, i.e., for award voting, Hall of Fame-worthiness, etc..

This analysis goes through Monday’s games. Let’s get to it.


The Padres’ Ha-Seong Kim, Cubs’ Cody Bellinger, Marlins’ Luis Arraez and Diamondbacks’ Corbin Carroll get plenty of mainstream down-ballot MVP buzz. The first three’s bats don’t hold up very well under my batted ball-based method. Bellinger in particular – while deserving plenty of credit for chopping his K rate significantly – has been extremely lucky across all batted ball types this season. Carroll, while having an exceptional season, has had his offensive numbers inflated by a large speed premium. My method guards against overweighting of speed, something that rightfully has held Trea Turner back in the past – while pretty accurately predicting his future.


The Braves’ Austin Riley (22.7 TPRAA) kind of gets lost in the shadows of all the offensive greatness going on around him. He’s pretty great himself. His games lacks a weakness – he evokes a young Mike Schmidt, down to the relatively poor K/BB ratio, big power and elite durability. The defense, while solid, is not in the same class. Mets’ shortstop Francisco Lindor (23.9 TPRAA) has gotten a lot of heat for the team’s shortcomings this season, but that goes with the territory of being the face of a franchise. His offense has been just a tad above league average, though that’s a plus at his position. Like Riley, his durability couldn’t be any better.

Cubs’ shortstop Dansby Swanson (24.0 TPRAA) was actually the 2022 NL MVP runnerup according to this method. He’s basically had the same exact season as Lindor, with a bit less offense and a bit more defense. An amazing number of top 2023 NL MVP contenders are either Braves or players the club has let go in the last year or so. Both Swanson and Brewers’ catcher William Contreras (26.5 TPRAA), along with Freddie Freeman, who will be heard from later, fit into the latter category. He’s been superb behind the plate, and has wrecked the baseball at bat. He’s the first of three players on this list that have bucked the launch angle trend, with an average below 8 degrees. The second low launch angle guy is the Padres’ Juan Soto (31.o TPRAA), who has given some runs back via subpar defense and baserunning. His bat is as good as ever. On batting contribution alone, he ranks 3rd in the stacked NL.


#5 – RF Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres) – 31.7 TPRAA – This one might surprise you a bit. He’s been really good defensively at his new position, and quite unlucky at the plate. Part of that has to do with an unusually oppressive marine layer situation this season in his home park. His Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 111 is way below his adjusted mark of 194. Tatis “should be” hitting .283-.344-.512 this season, way below his actual line.

#4 – 1B Freddie Freeman (Dodgers) – 42.5 TPRAA – Now we get to the real MVP contenders – or at least the real 2nd place candidates. Freeman has been breathtaking to watch for fans of pure hitting this season. He has compensated for declining raw power with utterly perfect technique, squaring the ball up more than ever and popping up extremely rarely for a power hitter. It’s not easy to make a run at 60 doubles, but he’s doing it. He has presented a master class on how to age gracefully at the plate. Plus, he’s a really good baserunner despite well below average speed.

#3 – 1B Matt Olson (Braves) – 42.7 TPRAA – Olson and Freeman, his predecessor at first base for the Braves, have provided nearly identically value to their clubs, but have done so in dramatically different ways. This big lefty, in the prime of his career, has done so with brute force. His 258 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is the best in the NL, nosing out teammate Acuna Jr. (253). And though he’s not a very good defender, he’s more than just a one-dimensional power hitter. He draws plenty of walks and sprays the ball to all fields – hard – on the ground. This is no Chris Davis.

#2 – RF Mookie Betts (Dodgers) – 42.7 TPRAA – For me, this is Betts’ best season since his 2018 AL MVP tour de force. He had fallen into a bit of a dead pull trap through 2021, but in the last two years has consistently ramped up his batted ball authority. If he holds his current level, his 92.6 mph average exit speed will represent a career high. He has perfected the launch angle game – he hits tons of fly balls but runs a respectable pop up rate. On top of everything, he added legitimate middle infield defense to his bag of tricks this season. In most years, he’d be a legit MVP candidate, but…..

#1 – RF Ronald Acuna Jr. (Braves) – 89.9 TPRAA – That number is not a misprint. Yes, I would pick our third low launch angle guy (7.7 degree average) over Shohei Ohtani for 2023 MLB MVP, no small feat. As great as Acuna’s actual numbers are this season, he’s actually been incredibly unlucky on balls in play and “should be” hitting a whopping .368-.438-.675 – some 2022 Aaron Judge-level stuff. Only Freeman has hit more liners than Acuna this season, and only Soto has hit them harder (by 100.1 to 99.9 mph). Why then, has Acuna posted a mere 95 Unadjusted Line Drive Contact Score this year, lower than every other player discussed today? Random chance, that’s why. His Adjusted Line Drive Contact Score of 125 is the highest of the group, and his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 253 is 2nd highest beyond Olson (and way below his unadjusted 171 mark). His defense has been his only weak link this season, and his prodigious basestealing has more than made up for it. There is an awful lot of Mookie for MVP buzz out there right now, and while the Dodger has been great, he’s no different than Freeman or Olson value-wise – and they’re all light years behind Acuna, who is having a season for the ages that simply must be rewarded.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top