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Could Ronald Acuña, Jr. win MVP?

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While Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger are the clear front runners right now, Acuña still has time to make his case.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich have understandably been the frontrunners for the National League MVP for most of the season, and it’s futile to argue against their credentials to this point in the season. However, there is still roughly a quarter of the season left, which could leave time for someone else to make a run at MVP.

Ronald Acuña, Jr. appears poised to make such a run to make things interesting in the NL MVP race. This August, Acuña has eight home runs, 15 RBI, 15 runs, and three stolen bases with a .367/.410/.898 slash, .510 wOBA, and a mammoth 224 wRC+ over 11 games. If Acuña can continue to produce at similar heights (even if not quite as stellar) for the next month or so, he could insert himself into the midst of the race.

NL MVP candidates

NL MVP AVG OPS R HR RBI SB wRC+ fWAR
NL MVP AVG OPS R HR RBI SB wRC+ fWAR
Ronald Acuña Jr. .298 .916 99 33 80 28 135 4.8
Cody Bellinger .317 1.077 92 38 89 9 172 6.3
Christian Yelich .335 1.130 82 39 84 23 179 6.4

To be clear, Acuña will likely need some help from Bellinger and Yelich to make up enough ground. Slumps and/or missing several games would likely be necessary. For what it’s worth, Yelich has missed the Brewers’ last five games with a back injury – the same back injury that required him to pull out of the Home Run Derby. If this injury continues to nag Yelich, it could unfortunately hurt his chances. Additionally, if the Brewers miss the playoffs, voters might be more inclined to vote for a player who elevated his team to a division title, like Bellinger or Acuña are likely to do. As for Bellinger, he might be rested more with the Dodgers having such a gigantic lead in the division, and he is off to a relatively slow start this month, posting a 110 wRC+ so far in August.

If you think that the gap is too big for Acuña to overcome, though, consider that Acuña has gained 1.1 fWAR on Bellinger and 0.7 fWAR on Yelich since July 19 and appears to only be getting hotter.

It is worth noting that players like Anthony Rendon and Ketel Marte are also having standout seasons. But they also fall significantly behind the top two and play on teams that are trailing in their divisions by significant margins. For another player to crack into the top two for NL MVP, it would likely need to be a player getting really hot at the end and carrying their team to unexpected heights for the season. Acuña fits that bill the best, in my opinion.

There are a few factors working in Acuña’s favor that could allow him to climb into the race and ultimately snatch the title. First, Acuña’s value will be optimized with him batting lead-off and playing right field. It should come as a surprise to no one (except Brian Snitker circa March 2019) that Acuña has been a completely different hitter from the lead-off spot in the lineup. In 149 career games hitting lead-off, Acuña has hit 45 home runs and stolen 40 bases. To put that in perspective, there has only been one 45 home run/40 stolen base season in the history of baseball (Alfonso Soriano in 2006).

Acuña by lineup position

Acuña G AVG OBP SLG R HR RBI SB wOBA wRC+
Acuña G AVG OBP SLG R HR RBI SB wOBA wRC+
Lead-off 149 .315 .393 .592 132 45 103 40 .410 156
All other spots 81 .256 .329 .449 45 14 41 4 .333 105

Acuña has also adapted very well to playing right field in Nick Markakis’ absence, and improved defensive metrics could help make Acuña’s MVP case. He never seemed very comfortable this season in center field, and playing left field did not allow him to utilize one of his best weapons – his cannon of an arm – quite as often. While defensive metrics in such a small sample are unreliable, the eye test of how Acuña comes up cocked and ready to throw out baserunners every time he fields a ball in right field should tell you all you need to know about his mentality out there. Take, for example, his put-out against the Marlins, which turned out to be a huge part of the Braves escaping the game with a win:

Another factor working in Acuña’s favor is his performance in the months of August and September. Acuña hit .320/.399/.609 with 15 home runs, .421 wOBA, and 166 wRC+ as a rookie last season during the months of August and September. While we only have one prior season to glean a trend from, Acuña is off to an even hotter August this season, as noted above. Acuña provided a massive boost to the Braves last season down the stretch to help the team close out the division title with ease. Repeating this task would certainly catch the eye of MVP voters, and recency bias could propel Acuña’s MVP odds.

Finally, a factor worth mentioning is Acuña’s pursuit of the elusive 40 home run / 40 stolen base season, a feat accomplished only four times in MLB history. At the time of publishing, Acuña needs seven more home runs and 12 more stolen bases. Considering that he is on pace for 44 homers and has stolen 15 bases in the last month, the 40/40 season is well within reach. However, as elusive as it is, the 40/40 season historically has not translated into MVP votes. Only one of the 40/40 club members won the MVP during their 40/40 season – Jose Canseco in 1988. None of the other three finished in the top four in MVP voting in their 40/40 season.

While Yelich and Bellinger remain the front runners for MVP, there is certainly a path for Acuña to overtake them. It will require Acuña to continue his phenomenal performance and some help, but at the age of 21, Acuña has already proven capable of rising to any challenge. In other words, don’t count Acuña out.