The Major League Baseball season is in the midst of the dog days as division races continue to heat up with the summer temps.
Many of the division races are very undecided, which is good for baseball overall. There is another intriguing race, however, taking place that has become a closer contest as of late.
For most of the season, Ronald Acuna Jr. of the MLB-leading Atlanta Braves has been the leader in the clubhouse for the National League MVP award. The 25-year-old right fielder is doing unprecedented things on the diamond and has earned all of the MVP hype.
His lead may be shrinking though. Acuna’s former teammate and current Los Angeles Dodger Freddie Freeman has closed the perceived gap. These are two players we discussed as potential MVP candidates back in May.
The raw numbers are so incredibly close, trying to determine who leads the other in a statistic flip-flops every other day. They are neck and neck in OPS+, slugging, batting average, hits, on-base percentage and the home runs are only separated by a few.
Ronald Acuna Jr. vs. Freddie Freeman: Deciphering the differences
A major difference in their candidacies is the RBI total. Freddie Freeman currently has 81 RBI to Acuna’s 68, a difference of 13. A main contributor to that number is the fact that Acuna bats leadoff while Freddie bats second in the L.A. lineup.
Looking into the player that most often bats in front of each of them, Mookie Betts for the Dodgers has an OBP of .386 while the ninth spot in the Braves lineup has a combined OBP of .335. Therefore the player directly in front of Freeman is on base 5.1% more than the player in front of Ronald Acuna.
Freeman also has 43 extra base hits to Acuna’s 30, excluding home runs. However, if we just look at raw numbers, we miss impact. If you add Freeman’s 16, yes 16, stolen bases to his 43, Freeman has put himself in scoring position 60 times. That means 30.7% of the time Freeman did not hit a home run and score himself, he was in position to score.
Ronald Acuna Jr. has put himself in scoring position 84 times due to his MLB-leading 53 stolen bases. That equates to 43.7% of the time Acuna is standing on base, he is in position to score. The fact that Acuna and Freeman have both scored 100 runs is a knock on the Braves behind him, not Acuna himself.
Assessing the analytics
Raw numbers never tell the whole story and when two players are nearly identical, looking at some analytics may help give a clearer picture.
Acuna leads Freeman in the following analytical categories: WAR, dWAR, Runs from Fielding, and Win probability added.
Freeman also has a higher batting average on balls in play (babip), which indicates there is a little bit of luck in Freeman’s favor.
Acuna’s average exit velocity this season has been an astonishing 95.1 mph compared to Freeman’s 90.2. Furthermore, Acuna’s hard hit % is almost 57% while Freeman is at nearly 42%. The most impressive evolution of Acuna’s game is his strikeout (12.6%) and walk (11.2%) rates, both of which are better than Freeman this season (17% & 10%).
History in the making
Is Aaron Judge a more valuable player than Shohei Ohtani? No. Aaron Judge won the 2022 AL MVP over Ohtani because of a historical season. Only Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Alfonso Soriano have ever had a season with 40 steals and 40 home runs.
If Acuna can get to 40 home runs, he would become the first player in the National League to have such a season and lead his team to the playoffs. Acuna is already the first player in MLB history to have 20 home runs and 35 stolen bases before the All Star Break.
Only Barry Bonds and Eric Davis have had seasons with 30 homers and 50 stolen bases and no player has ever hit 30 bombs and swiped 60 bags.
Ronald Acuna Jr. is having a truly historic season on the diamond and he matches his offensive output with his powerful arm in the outfield. The Aaron Judge argument only applies if Acuna were not the better or more valuable player than Freddie Freeman, but he is.
The Atlanta Braves are the best team in baseball and Acuna Jr. is the catalyst. MVP by default, often goes to the best player on the best team. Not only is he the best player on the best team, he’s simply the best player in baseball not named Shohei Ohtani.