The Braves have gone from a team emerging from a rebuild to a legitimate World Series contender over the past two seasons. They have built upon their 2018 campaign into a more complete team ready to make a postseason run in 2019. They went from a 90-win season in 2018 to a 93-and-counting win season in 2019 despite having a much more competitive division this season.
A big reason for the Braves’ jump this season has been their depth of talent. Josh Donaldson has provided a massive boost to the lineup, while Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Ronald Acuña, Jr. have continued to perform at high levels. Add in significant contributions from players like Austin Riley, Matt Joyce, and Dansby Swanson at different points in the season, and it’s not difficult to see why this team is significantly better than last year’s.
The Braves have also been remarkably consistent throughout the year. The lows have never been too low. Any time this team has lost two or three games in a row, they seemingly bounce back resoundingly. Undoubtedly, their consistency has been due to the fact that they do not rely too heavily on any one or two players. To this point, the Braves are the only team in baseball that has four position players with an fWAR above 4.0 (each Acuña, Albies, Donaldson, and Freeman have at least 4.2).
In a season that has been a true team success in every sense of the word, there are a lot of players one could point to as being the most valuable to the team. So I pose the question: who has been the most valuable player for the 2019 Braves?
Here’s the case for each of the top candidates:
Freeman is one of the best pure hitters in the game. Since 2016, Freeman is tied for fifth in wRC+ with 145 over that span (2000 PA minimum). 2019 has been no different. Freeman has a career high 38 home runs and leads the team in wRC+ (143) and xwOBA (.396). He also has career highs in runs and runs batted in, although that is more of a function of having better hitters around him (his wOBA and wRC+, for example, are third and fourth highest in his career, respectively).
Freeman’s largest contributions to the team, though, have been his consistency and leadership. He has anchored the Braves’ potent lineup from the third spot in the order all season. His worst month statistically as a hitter was in July when he posted a 112 wRC+. For those not familiar with the wRC+ metric, this means that, at his worst, Freeman was 12% better than the average hitter. While several other hitters in the lineup encountered struggles at the plate at different points in the season, Freeman was rock solid.
Freeman’s leadership on this young roster has been both immeasurable and invaluable. He has had a steady, calming influence in the clubhouse that only a veteran of his caliber can have. He’s been through the ups and downs with this franchise and knows what it takes to win. He shows that you can play with emotion and have fun yet not let it get the best of you or distract you.
Donaldson has been a catalyst for the Braves this season. He was the biggest addition to the roster in the offseason and has propelled the team to new heights in a much more competitive division than last year. The depth and power that he has brought to the lineup are huge factors in the team’s success this season. That he ranks second on the team with 4.6 fWAR should be no surprise.
Donaldson’s offense has been all that the Braves hoped it would be and more this season. Simply put, Donaldson has been crushing baseballs all season long. He ranks fifth and sixth in average exit velocity and hard hit percentage, respectively, this season among players with at least 200 batted balls, per Statcast. His power and on-base numbers have been mostly in line with the numbers he put up while being one of the best players in baseball from 2013 to 2016 despite a rusty start after missing a lot of time in the two seasons prior.
While his offensive numbers have been very impressive, his defense has been equally so. He has handled the hot corner with apparent ease and has produced an abundance of highlights throughout the season. Whether at the plate or in the field, Donaldson has produced at levels that have taken this team to the next level in their hunt for a championship.
Ronald Acuña, Jr.
Acuña is one of the most dynamic players in baseball at the age of 21. He can devastate opponents in all facets of the game. After an impressive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2018, Acuña decided that he wanted to be one of the best base stealers in game, too. He leads the National League in steals this season with 37 and is still in pursuit of a 40/40 season. If fWAR is your preferred measure of a player’s value, then Acuña has been the Braves’ most valuable player this season, as his 5.1 fWAR leads the team.
While individual accomplishments are great, Acuña’s contributions to winning his team ball games are copious. He is a spark plug for his team from the leadoff spot. As a leadoff hitter, Acuña has hit .297/.378/.558 with 51 home runs, 49 stolen bases, and a 142 wRC+ in 181 games since his debut last season. Whether he is leading off the game with a home run or drawing a walk and stealing second, he is a nuisance to opposing pitchers.
While Acuña’s defense has been shaky at times this season, it has also been equally impressive at other times. And at age 21, he has had a lot asked of him as a defender. He has played significant time at each outfield position while filling in for injured teammates, and his versatility has been very valuable.
Soroka has undeniably been the ace of the Braves’ rotation this year. His 2.57 ERA is the third best in baseball, and he could still end up with the lowest depending on how the season wraps up. Perhaps most impressively in a season of record home runs, the 21-year-old is second in baseball in allowing just 0.71 home runs per nine innings pitched.
Maybe the best way to assess Soroka’s value this season, though, is to consider where this rotation and pitching staff would be without him. Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman were supposed to be cogs in the front and middle of the rotation, only to see Foltynewicz demoted to Triple-A and Gausman released. Max Fried has taken a significant step forward this season, and Julio Teheran’s results have been better than most expected, but neither has been what you’d expect as a #1 starter on a division-winning staff. Dallas Keuchel was a needed addition midseason, yet he has been good but not great.
Soroka, on the other hand, has been one of the best in the league at consistently giving his team a chance to win. He has allowed two earned runs or less in 18 of his 27 starts and has allowed more than four earned runs only once – when he allowed five. Soroka deserves serious Rookie of the Year consideration and would probably win it if Pete Alonso weren’t setting all kinds of home run records, which tend to make a bigger impression on voters than a pitcher consistently inducing soft contact. Regardless, it is hard to overstate the impact that Soroka has had on this Braves’ rotation and team.
Albies is admittedly an under-the-radar candidate, as his value is overlooked by many. It might surprise a lot of people to learn that Albies has a higher fWAR than Freeman this season (4.3 for Albies versus Freeman’s 4.2). This can mostly be attributed to more consistent hitting, good baserunning, and superb defense from Albies this season. He has improved in nearly every facet of his game after an impressive 2018 campaign.
Perhaps the most significant contribution Albies has made is with his glove. He has logged more innings at second base than anyone in baseball and is tied for the fewest errors (4) among qualified second basemen. This is especially valuable for a Braves pitching staff that is excellent at inducing groundballs.
However, he has been no slouch at the dish, either. He has slash line of .293/.350/.502 and a 116 wRC+. Each of those metrics have improved from last season. Simply put, Albies has very few holes in his game, and he has proven this year to have the endurance to perform at a high level on a consistent basis. Plus, he might be the most fun player in baseball to watch.
So what do you think?
Who has been the Braves’ MVP this season?
This poll is closed
Ronald Acuña, Jr.