Atlanta Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. walks to the dugout before taking the field for a baseball game against the New York Mets, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Photo: John Amis/AP
Photo: John Amis/AP

NL MVP favorite Bellinger is coming to town. Can Braves’ Acuna catch him?

The Dodgers are in town this weekend at SunTrust Park. This is a chance to see how the Braves measure up against the National League’s best team. A packed house will watch the NL’s best player this season do his thing.

Cody Bellinger will be there, too. 

I’m kidding, of course. The Dodgers outfielder is the favorite to win the NL MVP Award. But the home team’s superlative young outfielder is having a fantastic season, too. Ronald Acuna is making a case to join what’s looked like a two-player MVP race between Bellinger and Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP. 

Since the All-Star break, Acuna ranks first in the NL in stolen bases (15) and tied for first in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (1.8) and home runs (13). Acuna ranks second in RBIs (29) and eight in on-base plus slugging (1.012) during that time. (All statistics are before Thursday’s MLB games.) 

Only the voters know for sure where Acuna stands in the MVP race. (AJC writers don’t vote for awards.) Acuna was among those receiving MVP votes in an poll two weeks ago. Bellinger received 24 of 34 first-place votes and the other 10 votes went to Yelich. 

Acuna is lagging those two players in offensive consistency. He’s hitting .298 with a .377 on-base percentage and slugging .540. Bellinger’s line is .317/.414/.660 and Yelich’s is .329/.420/.690. Those aren’t small differences. 

But Acuna is creeping up on Bellinger and Yelich in the home-run race, which may be key in MVP Voting. Acuna has 34 home runs, five less than both Bellinger and Yelich. Yelich was on the fringe of the MVP race around this time last season before hitting a barrage of homers. 

Yelich didn’t receive a first-place vote in an survey Aug. 2, 2018. That July he hit .400 with a .438 on-base percentage. He only tallied four homers that month, though, and his MVP candidacy didn’t take off until he hit more balls out of the park. 

Yelich’s batting average in August 2018 (.363) ranked just 21st among qualified batters in the NL and his OBP (.363) ranked 29th. Yelich’s MVP buzz increased because he hit 11 home runs in August, tied with Acuna for most in the NL. 

Then Yelich did it all in September: .370 average with a .508 OBP and 10 home runs. The Brewers went from five games back in the NL Central to begin the month, to edging out the Cubs for the NL Central title. Yelich earned 29 of 30 first-place votes on official MVP ballots. 

Acuna could use Yelich’s 2018 formula of hitting a bunch of homers over the final two months to come from behind to win NL MVP. He’s well on his way. Acuna has homered in nine of his last 12 games, including two at the Marlins. 

Winning the NL home-run race would be a big boost for Acuna’s MVP chances. Doing that while improving his offensive efficiency might put him over the top. If those things end up being roughly equal with Bellinger and Yelich, then Acuna could have the edge as an all-around player. 

Acuna has 28 stolen bases (on 34 tries) to go along with the 34 home runs. He has a real chance to become the fifth player in MLB history to total at least 40 home runs and 40 steals in a season, and the first since Alfonso Soriano in 2006. The others to do it are Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. 

The 40/40 cutoff may be arbitrary, but joining that club would give Acuna some cachet for MVP. I think it would be a bigger deal for Acuna than the others who’ve done it. In the past 20 years, MLB’s home run rate has gone up while stolen bases have gone down. Acuna is the outlier doing both. 

Those who watch the Braves regularly see what the advanced metrics confirm: Acuna is an outstanding base runner overall. Yelich also ranks highly in base running metrics and has 23 stolen bases in 25 attempts. Bellinger rated highly as a base runner during his first two seasons but is below-average this season. 

Acuna has developed into a very good outfielder. Bellinger is better, though he’s played fewer games than Acuna in center, the most valuable outfield position. Yelich won a Gold Glove early in his career, but his defensive metrics have been slightly below-average the past three seasons. 

Include base running and defense along with offense and Acuna close the gap with Bellinger and Yelich. They rank one-two in WAR. Excluding pitchers, who haven’t won NL MVP since 1968, Acuna is fourth in WAR behind Diamondbacks infielder/outfielder Ketel Marte. 

Acuna has a chance to help his MVP candidacy by hitting multiple homers against the Dodgers this weekend. It shouldn’t matter that Acuna does it with Bellinger on the other side, but voters are only human. Braves-Dodgers will get lots of attention this weekend, and some highlight slugging by Acuna surely would get the attention of MVP voters. 

The great thing for the Braves is Acuna is only 21 years old and already one of the best players in the game. There likely are more MVP campaigns to come. Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs writes that Acuna “has a great shot to become one of the game’s elites when it comes to combination of power and speed.” Szymorski’s ZiPS model projects Acuna will hit 552 home runs and steal 371 bases. 

Among the players at SunTrust this weekend, Bellinger is having the best season. Now Acuna isn’t far behind. This should be fun.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.