Betts was second on 30 of 30 ballots. Freeman was third on 17, fourth on 13. Olson – imported as Freeman’s Braves replacement – was third on 13, fourth on 17. Every voter saw four NL players as a cut above. Every voter deemed Acuña a cut above the cut above.
We locals have spent a zillion words describing the season we just witnessed, but the only one we need is a word that isn’t evocative – “majestic” is evocative” – but apt. The word is “unprecedented.” Before 2023, no player had hit 40 home runs and stolen 70 bases in a season. One has now.
But saying “40-70″ doesn’t say it all. This wasn’t a virtuoso in some cover band. This was the driver of one of the greatest lineups the sport has seen. When leading off a game, Acuña’s batting average was .379. His OPS was 1.074. His numbers were pedestrian in other innings – all told, he hit .337 with an OPS of 1.012 – but everything began with him.
The Braves scored 146 first-inning runs, the second-most by any team since 1961. Of those 146, 41 were Acuña’s. Eight of his 41 homers came in the first inning. Nineteen of his 73 steals came in the first. Opponents were never sure which was worse: If he hits a homer, the Braves have a run; if he walks and steals second, they might score four.
(Not to belabor the belabored, but the Braves didn’t manage a first-inning run in the Division Series. Acuña was 0-for-4 – groundout, strikeout, groundout, groundout. It’s a small sample size, but it’s another reminder: The Braves were great because they scored early and often. When they didn’t, they weren’t as great.)
Acuña was MLB’s No. 1 prospect. You saw him and said, “He’ll be an MVP one day,” though you knew such a forecasts doesn’t always pan out. (It didn’t with Jason Heyward.) Acuña tore his ACL in July 2021. He wasn’t himself in 2022. This year he cut his strikeout percentage by half, hit .300 for the first time and led the majors in on-base percentage.
He was so good we wonder if he’ll ever be so good again. Then reality slaps us upside the head. Acuña will turn 26 in December. The best players tend to be at their best in their late 20s. Dale Murphy won his first MVP at 26. At 27, he had an even better year and won it again.
Acuña made his MLB debut on April 25, 2018. Like Chipper Jones – another No. 1 prospect – he won Rookie of the Year. Like Chipper, Acuna has gone six seasons without playing on a team that finished anywhere but first. (The former’s streak would reach 11.) Like Chipper, he’s an MVP.
On the night he was hailed in unanimity, Acuña took a few questions via Zoom from the local media. Then he said he had to go hit. On his debut for Tiburones de La Guaira of the Venezuelan League, he led off with a mere single. In the sixth inning, he hit a home run.
So you’re asking, “How do the Braves feel about Acuña playing winter ball?” Their policy is to allow position players to do as they want. Acuña wants to play baseball. Were you as good as he is, you would, too.
One thing, though: Nobody’s as good as he is.
The above is part of a regular exercise available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes extras like a weekly poll and pithy quotes, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Go to the AJC.com home page. Click on “Choose from a variety of newsletters” at the top. Click on “Sports Daily.” You’ll need to enter your email address. Thanks, folks.