There is a big debate in the baseball community surrounding who is going to win the NL MVP award. Both Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts of the Dodgers and Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves are having career seasons for their respective teams, so I wanted to breakdown their numbers using analytical statistics to try and separate their impressive seasons so far.
To set the tone, there are a few who claim Freddie Freeman is a third viable contender for the NL MVP award. The first baseman has already broken the Dodgers single season doubles record with over 52 doubles this year, a record that was set all the way back in 1929. Add on top of that his fourth consecutive season of a batting average over .300, an OPS+ over 150 and a 7.0 fWAR season, the lefty slugger has been great for LA. The wildest part about this race is that so many forget to mention how great Freeman has been because Acuña and Betts have been that good. So just how insane have their seasons been? Let’s break it down.
Looking at Freeman’s Dodger teammate, Mookie Betts, he’s having yet another career year. A former MVP with the Red Sox in 2018, Betts leads the entire National League in SLG, OPS and OPS+. These are all power-hitter friendly stats, a tool not typically associated with Betts’ profile. He’ll earn his third season of over 100 RBIs and has already blown past his past season-high of 35 home runs (currently sitting at 38). In addition to these incredible stats, Betts is doing all this as the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter. He is just a few RBIs away from the all-time RBI record by a leadoff hitter set by Charlie Blackmon in 2017 (103). He’s also versatile on the field too, playing not just the outfield, but both middle infield spots as well.
Acuña is a different beast. He beats Betts in several offensive categories including average, hits, steals, runs scored and K%. Several of those marks also lead the NL, but the steals are what are most impressive. The Braves outfielder has 64 this season which leads all Major League Baseball, six more than the next closest mark set by Esteury Ruiz of the Athletics. To put this into perspective, Jon Berti led the MLB last year with 41. Granted, the bases are bigger and pitchers have a limited number of throws to keep the runner on, but Acuña has mastered the art of base stealing better than anyone else. He’s going to achieve his first ever 200 hit season, his OPS+ and wRC+ are over 160 and he has an fWAR of 7.2. On Baseball Savant, he’s in the 100th percentile in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG and average exit velocity (94.8 mph), demonstrating his pure domination and skills.
Both are producing offensively for their team so instead I wanted to look deeper into some lesser-known statistics that focus on their fielding and base running productions that might give a slight advantage to one over the other.
Fielding is a hard skill to quantify but I’ll use the analytics given by Fangraphs to help. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is a measure of a player’s total range in the field and is an enhanced version of defensive runs saved. Like OPS+ and ERA+, it measures your performance against league average and places you accordingly. The big difference though is OPS+ and ERA+ both use a scale of 100 as league average while UZR uses 0 as its base. Acuña has a UZR of -1.7 for 2023 while Betts has a value of 1+ for all positions he’s played (RF and 2B), except for SS where he has a value of -0.6 in 98 innings. Using 0 as the basis of league average, we can argue that Acuña has been a slightly below league average fielder while Betts has played more around that average. Outs Above Average (OAA) is another defensive stat we could use, and it tells a similar story. Using Baseball Savant, they’ve tracked Acuña Jr. in the 4th percentile of OAA (not good), totaling -8 on the season. Betts is floating just under league average in the 36th percentile (meh), totaling -1 in 2023. What this is telling us is that neither are having outstanding defensive seasons but there’s a slight edge for Betts.
Base running is also hard to gauge, but luckily, new age statistics provide us information there. Strictly looking at the numbers, Acuña absolutely destroys Betts in the stolen base category 64 to 11. All those successes on the basepaths have also led to plenty of failures, 12 to be exact, which leads the entire league. That’s what leads to some of their base running numbers to be closer to one another than some may think. On Baseball Savant, Betts ranks higher in BsR in the 58th percentile while Acuña is in the 53rd. Base running value (BsR) considers the runs or outs you’ve created on the bases by being aggressive, taking steals, preventing/running into outs. Despite Betts not stealing the same number of bags as Acuña, he’s prevented outs on the base paths and has been a smarter runner. Though Acuña has created runs with his steals, his aggressiveness may have hindered his team’s ability to score more runs by creating more outs (note: Acuña is on the Braves, the team with the most runs scored and best record so I don’t think it’s hurting them too much).
Team performance is another indicator voters use, but both sit comfortably atop their respective divisions. Both teams have seven players who’ve played over 90 games with an OPS over .800, so neither player is necessarily carrying their team. Personally, I think Mookie has added more value to his team through defensive versatility and power that I’d give him a slight advantage, but it’s too close to call with too much season left.