Ronald Acuña Jr.'s reward for an unprecedented season is his first National League MVP award.
The Atlanta Braves star was named the league's top player by the BBWAA on Thursday, beating out finalists Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, both of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The voting was unanimous among the BBWAA's 30 voters.
Acuña was actually supposed to be playing a game with the Tiburones de La Guaira in his native Venezuela when the award was announced, but there was reportedly enough anticipation in the country to push the game back an hour so he could accept with his teammates and coaches.
The honor, voted on at the end of the regular season, rewards Acuña for a prolific season in which he led the NL in plate appearances (735), runs (149), hits (217), stolen bases (73), on-base percentage (.416), OPS (1.012) and total bases. In most years, his .337 batting average would have been good for a batting title as well, but the Miami Marlins' Luis Arráez interfered there.
The truly historic part of Acuña's season was how he recorded home runs and stolen bases like no player in MLB history. His 41 homers and 73 steals were not only the first 40-70 season in league history, they were also the first 30-60 season in history. That's how far ahead he was of every other top power-speed artist, including Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds.
Of course, Acuña benefited from rule changes this season that made it easier to steal bases — MLB went from 2,486 total steals in 2022 to 3,503 in 2023 — but it's not like the stat is trivial now. Acuña had 19 more steals than second place in the NL, Corbin Carroll of the Arizona Diamondbacks (54).
Acuña appeared to have MVP wrapped up by midseason, but a second-half surge from Betts made the race competitive down the stretch. At one point they appeared neck-and-neck, then Acuña hit .386/.453/.771 in his final 21 games to put himself over the top.
Betts, who had the defensive edge thanks to his performances in right field, second base and shortstop, still finished slightly ahead of Acuña in the WAR race on Baseball Reference (8.3 to 8.2), but Acuña's other numbers, historic achievements and team success earned him the prize.
Acuña joined the Braves as a relatively unheralded international free agent in 2014 and exploded into a top prospect during his minor-league career. He was one of the most dynamic talents in baseball from Day 1, winning Rookie of the Year in 2018, but health soon became an issue.
This was the first season Acuña played more than 120 games since his sophomore season in 2019, having missed time in 2020 with a wrist injury and large chunks of 2021 and 2022 with a torn ACL.
Braves lineup was special this year
Acuña's MVP is the final recognition of a Braves lineup that was lethal from top to bottom this season, even if things didn't quite work out in the playoffs.
Here is the Braves' most-used lineup this season and their slash lines and OPS+, which is a stat that adjusts for park and era to show how good a player was relative to his peers. An OPS+ of 100 indicates league average, while 110 means 10% better than league average. All-Stars are bolded:
1. Ronald Acuña Jr.: .337/.416/.596 (168)2. Ozzie Albies: .280/.336/.513 (124)3. Austin Riley: .281/.345/.516 (128)4. Matt Olson: .283/.389/.604 (162)5. Sean Murphy: .251/.365/.478 (125)6. Marcell Ozuna: .274/.346/.558 (138)7. Eddie Rosario: .255/.305/.450 (100)8. Orlando Arcia: .264/.321/.420 (98)9. Michael Harris II: .293/.331/.477 (114)
Yes, that lineup ended up sputtering in the NLDS in a four-game loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, but the Braves went 104-58 for a reason. It's also not like anyone on that lineup is going away.
Let's go through that lineup again, this time with how long they are under contract with the Braves (including team options):
1. Ronald Acuña Jr.: 20282. Ozzie Albies: 20273. Austin Riley: 20334. Matt Olson: 20305. Sean Murphy: 20296. Marcell Ozuna: 20257. Eddie Rosario: free agent8. Orlando Arcia: 20269. Michael Harris II: 2032
Between those contracts and their lucrative real estate holdings, the Braves have become the envy of baseball. Fans can expect Acuña to play for the Braves until at least 2028, as well as every other hitter of note on the team. We'll see if that translates into another MVP for their brightest star. Or another World Series title for the team.