As Braves starting pitcher Spencer Strider continued to deal on a humid night at Dodger Stadium, a 99 mph fastball found its way deep to right as Mookie Betts, MLB’s best hitter in August, looked to end his month with a bang and give a Dodger team trailing 7-1 some life against one of the NL’s premiere pitchers. Betts kept his swing short, his hands in, and drilled an inside heater the opposite way to Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves right-field dynamo, and as Acuna timed his leap, the ball bounced off of his glove and into the stands to give Betts the 250th homerun of his Major League career and a fan a signature souvenir that will ultimately find its way back to Betts later in the night.
Just a few innings later, after Strider completed six innings and the Braves tacked on another run, Betts hit his 37th homerun of the season, this time of the pull variety, off of flamethrowing relief arm Joe Jimenez. For the Dodgers, the score is 8-6 as they battle the Braves to determine the league’s best team heading into the league’s final month of regular season play. For Betts, his league-leading 1.021 OPS has risen heading into the most important games of the Dodgers’ season, making him seem like a shoo-in for his second MVP, which would make him only the second player in MLB history to win the MVP award in both the American League and the National League, joining Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who had done so with the Cincinnati Reds in 1961 and Baltimore Orioles in 1966.
Yet, heading into the league’s final month, Betts showcase hasn’t yet carried him from the pack, because there’s another outfielder putting up numbers just as, if not more, historic than Betts 2023 campaign. It’s the same humid night at Dodger Stadium, August 31st, 2023, that a 25-year-old phenom completed his odyssey to something that no player had ever accomplished in a single-season in MLB history. Mookie couldn’t do it in his 30/30 MVP season for the 2018 Boston Red Sox. Barry Bonds, a player that stole over 500 bases and hit more homeruns than any player in MLB history, never accomplished the rare feat accomplished during that game. The aforementioned Acuna nailed a line-drive grandslam in the top of the second against Dodger starter Lance Lynn, and in doing so, became the first player in the history of baseball to record 30 homeruns and 60 stolen bases in a single season.
Ronald Acuna Jr.’s MVP Chase
If Acuna’s accolade sounds mind-boggling to you, that’s because it is. Rickey Henderson, the gaudiest statistical baserunner in the history of baseball averaged 74 stolen bases over a 162-game stretch, yet topped oug at only 28 homeruns as his career-high in 1986 with the New York Yankees and his 1990 MVP season with the Oakland Athletics, respectively.
Heading into the night, Acuna Jr. had hit .334/.416/.567 on the season, with 29 homeruns, 61 stolen bases and 79 RBI out of the leadoff spot. Those numbers have since gone up, as evident from the additional grand slam from when those statistics were collected. While Acuna Jr. has been one of the league’s top talents since his MLB debut in 2018, at 25 Acuna is piecing together his best season-long puzzle. To compare, here’s how Acuna sits in rate-statistics at age-25 with some of the similarly accredited players during their age-25 season:
|Statistics during age-25 season:||AVG||OBP||SLG||HR||SB||OPS|
|RAJ, ATL through Aug. 30th||.334||.416||.567||29||61||.982|
Acuna Jr. went 3-4 with his 30th homerun, four RBI and a stolen base in the first game of the series, improving on each previously mentioned marks. For Acuna Jr., the traditional numbers have been off the charts. Acuna Jr. has set the tone perfectly for an Atlanta team that won 8-7 in the series opener, improving to 87-45 on the season. Acuna is the most integral piece on a team that’s setting offensive records across the board, as Acuna impacting the game from the first pitch is essentially a formality. Acuna has led off in every game, and in games where he doesn’t give the Braves an immediate lead, he’s usually finding himself wreaking havoc on the basepaths, creating pitching mistakes with Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and Matt Olson behind him looking for their pitch to hit. This formula has been good for 125 first-inning runs to this point in the season, relieving pressure off of their pitching staff from the start of the game. Acuna’s pressure trickles down to the rest of the team, creating a sense of an intangible value that numbers and metrics can’t exactly quantify. Manager Brian Snitker can pencil Ronald’s name into the lineup every day knowing that he can fully utilize each players strengths and sit back while the recipe does the cooking for him. Yet, this wouldn’t be possible without Acuna setting the table for his proverbial meal.
For Acuna, the offensive improvement year-over-year is simple. For starters, Acuna is finally 100% from his 2021 ACL tear, despite playing the entire duration of the 2022 season. However, beyond that, Acuna’s more staunch in his approach, drastically cutting down on K’s by 10%. With the new shift rules encouraging putting the ball in play more, Acuna has put the ball in play at a significantly higher level, with a solid BaBIP to boot.
Acuna seemed to have the MVP locked in by the end of May, and his numbers haven’t seen a dip. Yet, that may no longer be the case because of Mookie Betts.
Mookie’s Insane August
Mookie Betts is one of the best baseball players MLB has ever seen, and as he reaches a decade of Major League service time, the Hall of Fame has become assumed for Mookie. Yet, his case for MVP is bolstered by what he’s done recently. Is it enough to change minds already made up that Acuna’s the MVP? That remains to be seen, yet Betts will end August with 51 hits and an OPS north of 1.300, and heading into his three-hit, multi-homer game against Atlanta, Betts had already boasted nine homers, ten doubles and a .454 average for the month of August. The issue with the narrative surrounding Betts is that the talk is that he’s done it for one month, as opposed to Acuna doing it during the dog days of summer.
That narrative is unequivocally false, however, as Betts just completed his third consecutive month of an OPS over 1.100. Betts started slow and then ramped up about mid-July, but he’s been just as consistent over a long-term course as Ronald has. The other argument against Betts is that he isn’t stealing as many bases as Ronald and he isn’t exactly in Ronald’s statistical vicinity. The perspective is short-sighted, however, as Betts defense continues to be stellar. That isn’t to imply Ronald’s sensational glove is anything but, however, Ronald’s only played his outfield corner. Betts has played right field just as well as Acuna, but has also filled in with gold-glove caliber defense in Los Angeles’ middle infield during their roster uncertainty, providing the Dodgers more defensive flexibility and value than Acuna provides the Braves.
At the end of the day, it’s just as hard to overlook the player leading baseball in SLG, OPS, OPS+ and position player WAR as it is a player that started their own HR/SB club. Both are driving in 100 primarily from the leadoff spot and are immediate spark plugs in their lineup. Yet, are they the best players in their lineup? Statistics and eye test say yes, but their competition for MVP are their own first base lineup mates.
The Freeman/Olson Dark Horse
When Freddie Freeman caught the final out of the 2021 World Series, he closed the book on a legendary Braves run by finally bringing a championship to Atlanta. Yet, as the offseason materialized, a reunion did not, and the Braves pivoted to hometown boy Matt Olson when they swung a trade with Oakland Athletics. Freeman signed with the Dodgers the very next day, saying goodbye to ‘The A’ after 12 seasons.
For both teams, this could not have worked out any better. Freeman, who became the first Atlanta Brave to be tabbed NL MVP since Chipper Jones in 1999 in the shortened-2020 season, might garner just enough support to win the award a second time in four years. While Acuna and Betts continue to create history of their own, Freeman has 51 doubles heading into the final month of the season. The single-season record for doubles is 67, set by Earl Webb, presenting Freeman a window of opportunity to break a record that has stood for 92 years.
Freeman needs 16 doubles to match the record, 17 to break it. Luckily for Freeman, he’s accomplished both of those in the span of a month this season. On top of exploiting Dodger Stadium gaps for sport, Freeman was hitting .338 heading into the series opener, just eleven points shy of Marlins’ Luis Arraez in the race for the NL’s batting crown. Freeman’s .998 OPS heading into the series puts him in a prime position for a top-three MVP finish, only complimented by his 25 home runs.
All of this be what it may, Freeman may not be the most dominant first basemen in the National League in 2023, as his replacement in Atlanta has hit the entire season.
At one point in late-August, Matt Olson had more homeruns than the Braves had losses on the season. With the series opener extending his season-long homerless streak to sixteen games, that is no longer the case. Before the homerless streak, Olson had belted 43 on the season, still pacing the senior circuit, and has since reached 112 RBI on the year, best in baseball. His .271 average doesn’t quite scream MVP, but in an era of three true outcomes, to hit for the amount of power Olson has while posting an average of that stature isn’t anything to sneeze at. Olson’s value to the team is in run production and there hasn’t been a better run producer than Olson in 2023. Olson’s biggest knock has always been that he’s too streaky, yet as he starts to see the ball better, it looks like Olson may get hot again.
In fact, Olson’s one hot homer stretch away from 50, and if he goes off the way he did earlier in the year, could threaten 60 even with just a month to go. The Braves record for most homers in a season is 51, set by Andruw Jones in 2005, and records were made to be broken. If the argument for Freeman rests in his XBH prowess, Olson is only eight XBH’s away from tying Freeman on the campaign, with more of his leaving the yard by a wide margin. The league XBH leaderboard can easily change in a month, putting Olson in the top three favorites over Freeman, as four players from two teams continue vying for one award between now and October.
As easy as it is to say that Betts and Acuna are far and away the most talented players on their respective rosters and probably the entire National League, it’s players such as Freeman and Olson that allow teams to get the most out of players like Betts and Acuna. With those two hitting behind them, it makes it far more difficult to pitch to either offensive guru, giving them better pitches to hit on a nightly basis. If the argument is value over statistic and that not all value is measurable, then there’s a decent case to be made that teams like the Dodgers and Braves can’t run without Freeman and Olson in the heart of their lineup.
As MLB enters its final stretch, there are two outfielders and two first basemen across two teams in a dog fight for the most prestigious individual award that baseball has to offer, including two players that have an MVP to their resume and two that have not yet received one. While the betting favorites are Acuna and Betts, the award has yet to be decided. The first series of the final month between the league’s two top teams could be the series to stick into the mind of voters.
Regardless of outcome, the baseball has seen its share of history already in 2023 and there’s still a month to go. Fans around the league should pay attention, appreciate, and enjoy the final month of the historic 2023 season.
The four-game set between the Dodgers and Braves continues tonight at 7:10 local time as Braves ace Max Fried takes on 2022 ERA Champion Julio Urias in the pitching matchup. Saturday’s matchup is set for 6:10 local time, while Sunday’s has a 1:10 local time matinee.
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