“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to win it,” Acuña said in July when it was becoming clear he’d be an MVP front-runner. “I would love to win it, but that’s not where my mentality is at.”
His mentality can be there now.
It was a remarkable season for Acuña, who’s always been among the game’s more dynamic talents. But he reached an unprecedented level in 2023, with a .337 average, .416 on-base percentage and .596 slugging percentage, with 41 homers and 106 RBIs. He stole 73 bases, besting Otis Nixon’s franchise record by one (set in 1991).
Acuña became the first player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and steal 70 bases. Previously, only four players had achieved a 40-40 season: Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (1998) and Alfonso Soriano (2006). None of them had reached 40-50.
Acuña, who played in a career-most 159 games, led MLB in runs (149), hits (217), stolen bases, on-base percentage and total bases (383). He led the NL in plate appearances (735), at-bats (643) and OPS (1.012). He made his fourth All-Star team as MLB’s leading vote getter. He also won his third Silver Slugger. His peers voted him player of the year in the MLB Players Association’s Players Choice Awards.
From start to finish, Acuña was the best player on the best regular-season team. The Braves won 104 games, their most since 1998 (106). Acuña was their spark atop the lineup throughout a campaign that broke multiple franchise records.
“If you could create a baseball player that’s an outfielder, I think that’s who you would create,” Orioles outfielder Austin Hays said at the All-Star game in Seattle.
Only two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, who’s expected to be American League MVP, had a greater fWAR (9.0) than Acuña’s 8.3. Betts also had 8.3, while Freeman was fourth at 7.9. Betts had built strong momentum for the MVP award with a red-hot August in which he hit .455 with a 1.355 OPS. His defensive versatility – he played outfield and infield – often is cited in his MVP case.
Overall, Betts hit .307/.408/.579 with 40 doubles, 30 homers and 107 RBIs. Freeman hit .331/.410/.567 with an MLB-leading 59 doubles, 29 home runs and 102 RBIs. Both Betts and Freeman have won league MVPs in the past (Betts in 2018 with the Red Sox; Freeman in 2020 with the Braves).
Betts gave Acuña a shout out on Instagram after he reached 40-70, saying: “I hope y’all know how crazy this is.”
Since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, they’ve had four MVP winners: Dale Murphy (twice, 1982-83), Terry Pendleton (1991), Chipper Jones (1999) and Freeman (2020). Acuña would join Murphy as the only Atlanta-era Braves outfielders to win the honor.
“I’ve been playing with Ronald since 2016 (in the minors), and I feel like, at this point, nothing surprises me anymore,” Braves ace Max Fried said in September. “He’s that talented. He’s that good.”
This would just be the latest achievement for Acuña, who’s been a trailblazer at every level. He became the youngest player to win Arizona Fall League MVP at age 19. Even in his home debut at Triple-A, he smoked a homer at 114 mph, which was a higher exit velocity than any Braves player had reached.
In 2018, his age 20 season, Acuña won Rookie of the Year. That October, he became the youngest player to hit a postseason grand slam.
Acuña tore his ACL in July 2021, which prompted the Braves’ busy trade deadline that helped produce their World Series title. When Acuña returned the following season, he admitted to playing more cautiously. He wasn’t his best self again until 2023.
And that form should earn him his most prestigious honor yet.