Mookie Betts, not Ronald Acuña Jr., is the NL MVP

Mookie Betts, not Ronald Acuña Jr., is the NL MVP


We’d all be better off if every MVP award was simply renamed, “Player Of The Year,” as it would save us a very annoying and tiresome debate about what “valuable” means. It gets doubly so in baseball, where we still haven’t quite escaped what numbers people should pay attention to, and what is overblown, and what the value of either of them is. That will definitely come into play in this year’s NL MVP debate. It’s been a foregone conclusion that Ronald Acuña Jr., armed with a never-before-seen accomplishment, will walk with the award. The problem is, he hasn’t been the best player in the National League. Mookie Betts is.

This harkens back a little to 2012, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, and yet Mike Trout should have won the MVP. It’s really hard to get past the flash of “TRIPLE CROWN,” and given that it hadn’t been done in 45 years, it was easy to assume that Cabrera was the MVP. The Triple Crown was so tangible. It stuck out. But Trout was basically the same offensive player by overall metrics (167 wRC+ to Cabrera’s 166, .409 wOBA to Cabrera’s .417) while also being a difference-making centerfielder. Whatever the definition of “value” to various people, clearly Trout carried more of it. He just didn’t have a shiny label to it all like Cabrera did.

We’re running it back this year in the NL. Acuña Jr. will likely finish the season with 30 homers and 70 steals — something that’s never been done. It’s an accomplishment that goes on any marquee, for sure. It speaks to a combination of skills that are rare to find in one player, a totality of baseball that only reasonably equates to an MVP award. The connection is easy to make. It makes anyone think that Acuña Jr. can beat a team in a number of ways.

Except by any other metric, Betts has been the better player. By both fWAR and bWAR, he’s been better. By wRC+ he’s been better. By wOBA he’s been better. At the plate, Betts has simply done more than Acuña Jr. He just doesn’t have the headlining, statistical accomplishment that Acuña Jr. will have.

The kicker, and should be weighted more than it probably will, is that Betts has done it not only while playing three different positions, and playing two of them well, but playing two positions he hadn’t played regularly in the Majors ever before. Before this season, Betts had logged 228 innings at second base in nine MLB seasons. He’s played 330 there this year. He had never played short at all in the Majors, and has moonlighted there at times this season. And he’s still a plus right fielder. The innings at short have been about as wonky as you’d expect, but he’s been a plus defender in the other two spots. Acuña Jr., meanwhile, has been a woeful right fielder, and a right fielder only. He’s at -7 Outs Above Average according to Statcast and -8.9 Defensive Runs Saved according to FanGraphs. Betts isn’t the defensive overlord he once was, but he’s basically played about even at second and in right.

If you want to get into the murky depths of what “value” to their respective teams constitutes, and you really shouldn’t because the award should just be about the players themselves, the Dodgers have needed Betts to do what he’s done more than Atlanta has needed Acuña Jr. Atlanta has one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, ranking third in ERA. The Dodgers are 16th and have had injuries all through their rotation. Atlanta is stocked with a lineup full of killers, with nine players having a wRC+ over 110. The Dodgers are hardly skint, with six of their own, but JD Martinez, Will Smith, and Max Muncy have all missed time and they’ve still had their wonky pitching to overcome. Betts has had to do more carrying, shall we say.

Maybe it’s Dodgers fatigue, though Atlanta fatigue won’t be too far off given their streak of excellence. Mostly we’re sure it’s just the glitz of a rare statistical accomplishment. But by any measure, and especially the ones that really matter, Betts is the MVP. And it will also torture Red Sox fans more. Isn’t that what we all really want?

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.