Braves Swag MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. Is Pushing Ohtani, Judge as MLB’s Best Player


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Ronald Acuña Jr. as Major League Baseball’s resident swag king and the favorite for the 2023 National League MVP? Psh. Those are tired takes.
But Ronald Acuña Jr. as the best player in the league? Now we’re talking. That’s wired.
It’s tempting to simply outsource this to one of Acuña’s fellow stars on an Atlanta club that, at 29-19, is tracking toward a sixth straight National League East championship. Take it away, Spencer Strider.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen,” the ace right-hander said recently of Acuña. “I don’t know what else there is to say. Words can’t really do it justice. He’s the best player in the game right now and I’m just glad he’s on our team.”
Ah, but Strider isn’t a neutral arbiter and there’s also another problem: Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge still exist and still have strong claims as No. 1 and No. 1-A among MLB’s best players. Judge hit 62 home runs last year and is currently leading in OPS for a second year in a row. Ohtani is Ohtani. He hits and pitches. He sings and dances. He crushes Funyuns.
And yet, this wasn’t the first thought crept up after hearing Strider’s thoughts. It was preceded by, “Hmmm…What if he’s right?”
The Quest to Lead MLB in Everything
Look, it’s hard to make the case that Ohtani isn’t MLB’s de facto best player. Across the last three seasons, he’s been 49 percent better than the average hitter and 55 percent better than the average hitter. This is one guy doing this. It’s bonkers.
One’s eyes nonetheless shift to Judge (heh) because of how he proved in 2022 that even a one-way player can beat out Ohtani in a given year. All it took was leading the league in at least two dozen key categories.
Is Acuña there yet? No.
But he’s trying.
The 25-year-old right fielder has 11 home runs and leads the National League with 20 stolen bases and all of MLB in 10 different categories, including on-base percentage (.427), times on base (93) and runs scored (46). He also co-leads in rWAR (2.9) and is a close to the top in the following:
.337 AVG: .034 behind Luis Arráez
.034 behind Luis Arráez 1.015 OPS: .037 behind Judge
.037 behind Judge 63 Hits: 5 behind Bo Bichette
5 behind Bo Bichette 25 Extra-Base Hits: 3 behind Freddie Freeman
3 behind Freddie Freeman 110 Total Bases: 2 behind Freeman
That torn ACL that halted Acuña’s MVP push in 2021 and rendered him a shell of his Rookie of the Year-winning, near-40/40-ing self when he returned in 2022? Never mind, just in the past. It’s so far in the past that it might as well be preserved in amber.
And it’s possible that he hasn’t peaked yet.
The Quest for a Season Unlike Any Other
While Acuña “only” has 11 home runs—or, as many as Ohtani and three fewer than Judge—he’s been binging lately with eight in his last 24 games.
Between this and the notion that he deserves more dingers than he has, his official pace for 37 homers sets the target too low. Even 40 might be as well, but it’ll do for a reasonable mark.
Meanwhile, Acuña is also on pace for 213 hits, 155 runs scored and 68 stolen bases. Nobody has swiped that many bags since Juan Pierre in 2010, and Jeff Bagwell in 2000 is the only guy since Ted Williams in 1949 to score over 150 runs in a season. And of the four members of the 40/40 Club, Alex Rodriguez in 1998 is the only one who also tacked on 200 hits.
The obvious caveat here is that these are 162-game projections. The possibility of Acuña playing in every single game is unlikely, which is to say nothing of how hard he’ll be pressed to continue dominating at his current level.
Then again, why not?
Though he has yet to play in all 162 as a big leaguer, he came close when he played in 156 in 2019. And if anyone dares to look for evidence that he’s running too hot on offense, take a hint that it’s not there. If anything, he’s underachieved.
The Joy of Overkill
Besides, who says entertainment value can’t also be part of a best in baseball discussion?
Neither Ohtani nor Judge is boring, mind you. The latter is stoic, but with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humor. As to the former, the only guy who’s more smiley than he is while playing baseball is Smyly, Drew.
But there’s also a certain efficiency with which Judge and Ohtani go about their business. It’s hard to accuse them of being fans of overkill. Which is fine, but it does make one appreciate Acuña’s fondness for and proficiency with overkill that much more.
Consider, for example, what he did on Monday against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Following a walk to Matt Olson that should have merely moved Acuña to second base, he noticed Max Muncy was napping at third base and decided to take it:
Was this necessary? This was not necessary. But it didn’t hurt, and the look on Acuña’s face when he got up and dusted himself off had a sort of “I did it because I could” energy to it.
Which feels like his whole brand, really. It’s there in his league-high-tying collection of 450-foot home runs since his debut in 2018. And in his laughable lead in 105-plus mph batted balls just this season. And when he feels like showing off his 100th percentile arm strength when in moments when a baserunner has absolutely no intention to test it.
There’s also, of course, the fact that Acuña leads MLB in the prestigious stat known as HtGWCHP: Hitting the Griddy While Crossing Home Plate.
Ultimately, it doesn’t even do Acuña justice to stack him up solely next to Judge and Ohtani.
Manny Machado had a point when he said in April that Acuña is the closest thing to Ken Griffey Jr. in today’s MLB. His renown isn’t just about his oodles of talent. It’s also a Choose Your Own C-Word Adventure thing. Coolness. Charisma. Character. Whatever. He’s got it.
It’s what makes him a player who not only demands to be watched, but who makes it hard to look away. He’s a star whose brightness is matched only by his gravity.
Whether you buy that he’s the best or merely one of the best, there should be no disagreeing that the NL MVP is his to lose and that Major League Baseball is lucky to have him.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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