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Starting Nine: Acuña, MVP? Why 2021 could (or couldn’t) be his year

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With the Braves right fielder on everyone’s MVP shortlist, examining the case for and the case against Acuña ending 2021 as NL’s best

Tampa Bay Rays v Atlanta Braves
At least one service has Ronald Acuña Jr. projected to lead the league in homers (43), while finishing second in the National League in on-base percentage (.390) and slugging (.568).
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The last week at Braves camp has been a Ronald Acuña Jr. love fest — and for good reason.

Home runs in three of the last five games have made that 1-for-14 start a distant memory, not that anyone was concerning themselves with a spring slump, but it’s a reminder, as manager Brian Snitker said, why “he’s one of those guys that you don’t want to get a beer or go to the bathroom when he’s up.”

A year removed from a 40/40 pursuit that came up three stolen bases short, Acuña is on everyone’s MVP shortlist, and a run at the National League’s top award feels like the fitting next step in his career trajectory after three straight seasons of averaging 142 wRC+ and 3.9 fWAR and finishing fifth in the 2019 voting and 12th last year.

“Oh, absolutely,” Snitker said of whether his 23-year-old right fielder is a serious candidate.

There’s a strong bet he scores that hardware, maybe even multiple times. But is 2021 the year Acuña drops the tilde on it, and turns it into the ÑLMVP? Running through why it could and why it couldn’t happen for El Abusador in this week’s Starting Nine.

The Case For

1. The magic age

Age 27 is considered to be the peak for more players, but some of the all-time seasons — including a magical one for the unquestioned greatest Braves of all — have come from hitters at 23, the age Acuña will play the 2021 season at. It’s the age that Willie Mays (1954), Hank Aaron (1957), Jeff Burroughs (1974), Fred Lynn (1975), Jose Canseco (1988), Frank Thomas (1991) and Cody Bellinger (2019) all won MVPs. Post-World War II among top 25 Age-23 seasons in terms of wRC+, only Frank Robinson (1959), John Mayberry (1972), Mark McGwire (1987) and Troy Glaus (2000) didn’t finish in the top 5 of voting in that season. Acuña’s expected to net 144 wRC+ via ZiPS projections, which could make him the 10th age-23 player to reach that number since 2000 and the second Braves player after Freddie Freeman (150) in 2013.

2. Forecasting a monster season

Speaking of that fWAR, which is at 5.9 by ZiPs and 5.3 via Steamer, we’ll focus on the former, which is the fourth-highest overall, trailing only Mike Trout (6.7), Alex Bregman (6.0) and Mookie Betts (6.0) and trails just Betts among NL players. Acuña is also forecasted to lead the majors in home runs (43), and he comes in at third in .958 OPS, which is third overall behind Trout (1.020) and Juan Soto (1.015). The batting average (.282, which we’ll get into) hurts, but projected for a .390 on-base percentage (second in NL to Soto’s .420) and .568 slugging (second behind Soto, who’s at .595), Acuña could challenge for the Sabermetrics Triple Crown. Since 1982, there have been 11 players to lead their league in average, OBP and slugging and a pair of A’s, Jason Giambi (2001) and Mark McGwire (1988), are the only ones who didn’t wind up with an MVP.

3. The Acuña/Soto/Tatis hype

Fernando Tatis Jr.’s record-breaking 14-year, $340 million extension has taken the Acuña, Soto or Tatis debate to another level, and that figures to keep even more of a focus on the trio as they argument plays itself out on the field. We’ve yet to see Tatis play a full 162-game season, but the all-around game is undeniable, and the Padres’ busy offseason has him primed to be at the forefront. Meanwhile, Soto and not Freddie Freeman may have taken home the MVP last season if the Nationals’ now 22-year-old hitting savant hadn’t missed time due to a negative COVID-19 test. Among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances through their age 21 season, his slugging percentage is fourth (.557) and his on-base percentage (.415) sits fifth and he’s somehow made working a walk cool. Then there’s the skillset of Acuña, who tops the trio in the mix of power and speed. No matter how you rank them, it’s a discussion that’s far from over. Acuña, Soto and Tatis are going to be a central part of the baseball conversation in 2021 and that helps Acuña’s case as they play a daily game of one-upmanship.

4. The odds are (almost) ever in his favor

After finishing a distant second to Freeman in last season’s NL MVP voting, the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts enters the season alongside Soto, via Sports Betting Dime, as front-runner at +750, followed by Bellinger (+800), Tatis (+850) and Acuña (+1000). For those wondering, Freeman is at +1200, tied for sixth along with the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado, the Mets’ Francisco Lindor and Brewers’ Christian Yelich. Per Sports Odd History’s database, since 2010 there’s been only one winner who entered the season at lower than +1000, Ryan Braun at +800 in 2011, and while there’s come the extreme of Yelich’s long-shot win in 2018 (+1500 that spring), six of the last nine winners have been in that +1000-+2500 camp that Acuña resides in. That includes Freeman, who was at +2500 last preseason, while Betts entered Opening Day as the favorite at +600.

5. No shortage of attention on the division

Along with the spotlight that comes with bright stars Acuña and Soto calling the NL East home, the Mets were busy this winter — most notably bringing in Lindor, Carlos Carrasco and James McCann — the Phillies brought back J.T. Realmuto and retooled its bullpen, the Nationals added some potential firepower with Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber and added veteran Jon Lester to the rotation. The Marlins, coming off a postseason berth, may not be built to contend over 162 games just yet, but with Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez, their rotation is dangerous. There’s not a deeper division in baseball, setting the stage for a race that figures to be a resume-builder for the star that proves its defining force. Between Acuña, Freeman, Lindor, Soto, Pete Alonso, Bryce Harper, and on and on, there won’t be any shortage of marquee names looking to do just that.

The Case Against

6. The Rarity of back-to-back MVPs

Despite the what the Yankees — who won four straight American League MVPs from 1954-57 with Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle and four more between 1960-63 via Roger Maris, Mantle and Elston Howard — claiming consecutive MVPs is hard enough, let alone coming from the same team from different position players. It’s happened seven times in total in the AL and four times in the NL since the Baseball Writers Association of America started the process in 1931. Whittle that down to the expansion era and it’s become that much more difficult, with three occurrences in each circuit, with the Phillies the last to do it with multiple position players when Ryan Howard won in 2006, followed by Jimmy Rollins. Howard nearly pulled it off in 2008 when he finished second to Albert Pujols and the Tigers’ Victor Martinez was second in 2014, a year after Miguel Cabrera’s win. But overall, since 2000, it’s those Phillies and the Giants with Jeff Kent (2000) and Barry Bonds (2001) before them. That’s it.

7. The Leading Man hasn’t always led

The rise of the slugger manning the leadoff position plays to Acuña’s benefit. Since Acuña’s arrival in 2018, he’s hit a home run every 15.1 at-bats, putting him behind the Dodgers’ Max Muncy (13.2), Bellinger (14.2), the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez (14.8) and Schwarber (15.0). He’s also clubbed 19 home runs as the first batter of the game, tied for 42nd all-time despite his having played just 230 career games, trailing only new Blue Jays addition George Springer has more with 21. We’ve become accustomed to power at the top in the modern lineup construction, with 14 of the top 25 teams ever in terms of home runs produced from the No. 1 position in the order all coming since 2016. Plus, a leadoff hitter has won the MVP recently, with Betts manning that spot when he won the award for the Red Sox in 2018. But historically, it hasn’t been the springboard to the hardware. Before Betts, there were just eight winners: Phil Rizzuto in 1950 (AL); Maury Wills in ‘62 (NL); Zoilo Versalles (1965, AL); Pete Rose (NL, 1973); Rickey Henderson in 1990 (AL); Ichiro Suzuki (2001, AL) and Rollins in ‘07.

8. Being a (full) season removed from a 40/40 run

Slimmed down, Acuña figures to be even more of a threat on the base paths a year after he swiped just eight bags and two years removed from finishing with 37 steals as he tried to become the fifth player in history in the 40-home run/40-stolen base club and the first since Alfonso Soriano in 2006. We’re basically throwing last season out in terms of it being a true follow up to that ‘19 pursuit given it was cut down to a mere 60 games. The projections line up nicely for Acuña to give it another go, with Steamer forecasting 41 homers and 43 via ZiPS, but both have him coming up short again in steals, with 28 by Steamer and 33 from ZiPS. If 40/40 is to be the foundation of an MVP campaign, consider that among the 12 players in history who have had 40 or more homers and 30 steals, only Bonds in ‘97 has delivered another season or 30 or more steals.

9. The one area Acuña’s game is still developing

When asked to assess his young star’s tools, Snitker gushed “He’s a weapon on defense, he can steal bases. The power is there. The one thing is hit for average. As he matures, he’ll hit for a higher average also than he is right now.” Therein lies the knock on Acuña’s game. No batting average isn’t held in the same regard that it once was, but over his first full seasons, Acuña has hit .281, topping out at .293 over his 111-game Rookie of the Year run in ‘18 and hit .250 last year. Since 1969, only three MVPs have hit at that clip (Giancarlo Stanton in 2017, Dale Murphy in 1982 and Willie Stargell in 1979, all at .281) and you have to go all the way back to Harmon Killebrew in 1969 (.276) to find an MVP whose batting average was lower than that trio. On average since 2000, MVPs have posted a BA of .326, with Stanton representing the low end and Joe Mauer’s .365 average from 2009 the high end. It may not end up being the make-or-break element of any Acuña campaign but considering the number of voters who still subscribe to those old-school stats, hitting below .300 wouldn’t play to Acuña’s favor. He’s projected at .282 by ZiPs; .281 via Steamer.