For the second time in four seasons, the Atlanta Braves had one of their players win the National League MVP award. This time, Ronald Acuña Jr. joined the elite club of players to win the MVP award while wearing a Braves uniform. Any time you can join the likes of any conversation involving Henry Aaron, Dale Murphy, Chipper Jones, and Freddie Freeman then you've done something incredible on a baseball field. That's exactly what Acuña did in 2023 and there's decent reason to believe that this is only the beginning of his peak performance.
Atlanta signed Acuña back in 2014 as an international free agent. He didn't arrive with a ton of fanfare upon being signed (remember when Kevin Maitan signed? That was fanfare) but once he got a chance to prove himself in the minors, he hit the ground running and succeeded at every level he played at. This eventually resulted in Acuña being called up in late April 2018. He's been a mainstay in both the outfield and the top of Atlanta's lineup ever since.
About a year after being promoted, Acuña signed an eight-year, $100 million extension with the Braves that retains him through 2026, with club options for the 2027 and 2028 seasons that offer a salary of “just” $17 million a year. The $17 million annual salary is the same that he began to earn last year, and will continue to earn through the end of his deal.
What were the expectations?
Relatively speaking, 2022 was a tough season for Acuña. While he was cleared to play after coming off an ACL tear in the middle of the 2021 season, it was obvious that his knee wasn't 100 percent at any point in 2022 and it was going to take a while before he returned to form. Fortunately, the Braves allowed Acuña to get competitive reps both in the Venezuelan Winter League and in the World Baseball Classic. In both of those competitions we started to get tiny glimpses of the new-and-fully-healthy version of Acuña.
Once it became clear that Acuña was healthy and chomping at the bit to get the season going, expectations went through the roof. Thanks to both this and the new rule changes, Ozzie Albies did a great job of summing up everybody's expectations for Acuña in 2023: 40/40 (including Albies and Michael Harris II. He was pretty optimistic!) and MVP. The stage was well and truly set for Acuña.
On a more numerical basis, Acuña’s projections varied based on how much you felt like it was appropriate to bake in his injury history and his underwhelming 2022. (It’s worth noting here, too, that while Acuña posted 2.2 fWAR in 533 PAs in 2022, that came with a big xwOBA underperformance that suppressed his production quite a bit.) It seemed like something like a 3 WAR season was a safe bet given his talent and history of dominant production when he wasn’t hampered by a recent knee injury; ZiPS offered a much more sanguine point estimate of 4.5 WAR over 577 PAs.
Safe to say that this was a fantastic season for Acuña, as he basically picked up where he left off in 2021 before he got injured. In fact, this was the healthiest season so far for Acuña, as he ended up playing a career-high 159 games in 2023. That was nowhere near the only career high for Acuña, as he put up the best numbers of his career in every category that you could think of. From the counting stats to the peripherals, Acuña either slightly edged or obliterated his previous career-high numbers.
Perhaps the most impressive improvement that Acuña made at the plate was the fact that he cut down his strikeout rate by a whopping 12 percentage points. Since 2001, no one has even come close to doing the same when getting 500+ PAs in back-to-back seasons; in fact, only two players have even managed to have double-digit decreases in strikeout rate in that span (David Ortiz, 2010-1 and Cody Bellinger, 2022-3). In the entire postwar era, the only guy to achieve such a drastic reduction in strikeout rate was Mark Belanger from 1968 to 1969, and all it did for Belanger was bring him up to a league average-ish batting line. From the gif above, it’s clear that Acuña was nowhere near the realm of “league average.”
Suffice to say, Acuña’s plate approach was near-pristine. He increased his overall contact rate from about 77 percent to about 83 percent, and while for most batters that would mean less power, well, for Acuña, contact usually ended up being bad news for opposing teams and wonderful news for the Braves and us fans as well, even moreso than before. To put a fine point on it: Acuña posted a .493 xwOBACON (up from .444 in 2022), second to only Ohtani, while also making more contact across the board. It’s an absurd feat for an absurd season.
All of this culminated in an incredible season that was worth 8.3 fWAR, tops in MLB. Ronald Acuña Jr. basically built his own suite in the 40/40 club as he finished with 41 home runs and 73 stolen bases. He was rightfully named National League MVP and in unanimous fashion, at that. Individually speaking, this season can't be seen as anything but a runaway success for the dynamic leadoff hitter.
What went right?
Pretty much everything above, and then some. Aside from the production, the consistency of Acuña’s amazingness is awesome to look back on. He led MLB in WPA, blowing everyone, including pitchers, out of the water as well. If position players could receive shutdowns and meltdowns like relievers, he would’ve had 27 “meltdowns” in 159 games played... along with 69 “shutdowns.” Yes, that’s right — he had a big, positive win expectancy swing in over 40 percent of the games he played. Maybe that’s not that surprising since he, alone, amassed about 15 percent of the fWAR of the team with the highest fWAR total in the majors, but still, crazy stuff.
He never had a month with a wRC+ below 142. His worst xwOBA against any individual pitch type was .373 (and that was the rarely-seen splitter). To be clear: there were only 22 players in MLB that got 200+ PAs and had an overall xwOBA of .373 or higher. There was no traditional Gameday “zone” in which he posted a below-average xwOBA. In terms of swing/take, he added value in every part of the zone, and finished in the top 10 or just outside of it in all four of the breakdowns (heart, shadow, chase, waste).
Would you believe, then, that Acuña’s highest-WPA game of the year was driven by this random game-winning single against the Pirates? Okay, it was a single that hit off the base of the wall, but still, what a strange quirk in an amazing season:
Or, how about him tying the game with two outs by attempting to steal third, which was somehow his second-highest WPA play of the season?
What went wrong?
Just about the only thing that you could ding Ronald Acuña Jr. for this season was his defense. He still has an absolute cannon for an arm — as evidenced by the fact that his 104.1 mph throw on June 22 in Philadelphia ended up being the second-hardest throw in all of baseball last season and his 95.7 mph average was good enough to crack the top 10. With that being said, nearly all of the defensive metrics were in agreement that Acuña was not great on defense by any stretch of the imagination. This isn't to say that he's definitely a liability in right field (not as long as he’s got that laser beam arm strength) but it is to say that if anything could've gone even slightly wrong for Acuña in this season, it's the fact that his fielding wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire... and due to various measurement quirks and straight-up misplays, it ended up rating pretty poorly.
Per Statcast’s jump metrics, Acuña’s first step has generally been poor, even before the ACL injury. Since then, where he’s suffered has been his acceleration, or “burst.” On the flip side, he generally runs very good routes, though that’s driven by the fact that his (lack of) reaction and acceleration make it easier for him to home in on the ball as it flies.
Still, it's tough to complain when the guy can fire off rockets like he does.
Beyond that, the complaints about him seem kind of silly. What actually went wrong for Acuña this season was that he underhit his xwOBA by a massive amount. Of the 250 or so players with the most balls in play, only seven underhit their xwOBA by more. If his wOBA had matched his xwOBA for the season, he would’ve had a 194 wRC+, and something like a 10.4 fWAR season.
He also had like one bad game (0-for-5, including a key out in extra innings) against Baltimore (that the Braves still won), and literally his worst WPA play of the year was this double play ball:
Even if you want to point to his meager batting line in the four NLDS games as evidence of what went wrong, well... he had a .350 xwOBA in those games, including this game-swinging out that changes the whole series if it isn’t caught:
The scary part about, well, his 2023 season, is that Acuña will only be 26 years old heading into next season and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections suggest that this might just the start of what could be a dominant run for years to come for Acuña. If he can continue to stay healthy, then this type of production will be something that we come to expect every season. He's that good and he's firmly in his prime as well.
It may not always look like another 40/40 season, but it very well could end up being like that, too. In fact, the aforementioned link suggests that a 50/50 season would not be outside the realm of possibility. If that happened then we'd probably see Acuña put up something in the neighborhood of a 10-win season according to fWAR. That is rarefied air but it's definitely a possibility for Acuña if he can keep on improving. He won't be short on motivation as nobody in the Atlanta Braves organization was satisfied with how their season ended, so that could very well spur Acuña to reach another level going forward.
Steamer and ZiPS agree on a central estimate of 7.3ish WAR for the kid, which is an absurd number for anyone’s central estimate, but here we are.
Basically, if you aren't excited to see this guy playing every day for the Braves for the next few seasons then I don't know what to tell you at this point. Ronald Acuña Jr. is a bonafide superstar and he should continue to perform at a high level for the foreseeable future.