At this point, two weeks removed from the end of the World Series, most everyone’s attention has shifted toward what should be a wild winter around baseball. But before we fully stoke the Hot Stove and close the book on 2023, there was one more bit of business to attend to: the AL and NL MVP Awards, which were handed out in a live ceremony on Thursday night.
Much like the Cy Young races, we weren’t expecting a ton of drama here, and we didn’t get any. The Angels’ (well, for now, anyway) Shohei Ohtani and the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. didn’t just prove themselves the best players in baseball in 2023; they put together two of the most statistically outrageous seasons the sport has seen, and now they’re the first pair to win MVP unanimously in the same year.
For the second time in three years, Shohei Ohtani is the American League’s Most Valuable Player!— MLB (@MLB) November 16, 2023
Somehow, after all this time, Ohtani still finds ways to amaze. The two-way phenom had plenty working against him this year, from a dismal supporting cast around him to a nagging oblique injury to the elbow trouble that cost him most of the season’s final two months — plus all of 2024 — on the mound. And yet, amid all that, he was still the best hitter in baseball, leading the AL in homers, OBP and total bases while leading the Majors in slugging and OPS. In a normal world, slashing .304/.412/.654 with 44 dingers, 95 RBI and 20 steals would be enough to earn you an MVP award all by itself. Ohtani did that ... and then added 132 innings with a 3.14 ERA and 167 strikeouts as a pitcher.
It’s easy to allow yourself to become numb to it over time, so go read that paragraph again and really sit with it. The best all-around hitter in the game also happens to be one of its five or six most dominant pitchers; with all due respect to Babe Ruth or any of the other two-way players throughout baseball history, we have quite literally never seen anything like Ohtani, and it’s possible that no other sport has either. Putting a number to that idea is ultimately futile, but here’s an attempt: Ohtani tallied 6.0 bWAR as a batter and 4.0 as a hitter, while the AL’s second most-valuable player by that metric, Marcus Semien, was closer to Bo Bichette in 14th place than he was to Ohtani in first. He’s two star players in one, and he’ll deserve every penny of the $500 million+ that’s coming to him this winter — even if we’ll have to settle for an MVP season at the plate before he resumes pitching in 2025.
Julio Rodriguez finished fourth in the AL MVP voting. He finished seventh as a rookie in 2022.— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) November 16, 2023
JP Crawford was on multiple ballots while Cal Raleigh was also ballot. pic.twitter.com/vyLZDQ7O1n
This is Ohtani’s second MVP award in the past three years and the fifth in Angels history, joining the three won by soon-to-be former teammate Mike Trout. He’s the 20th unanimous MVP in league history, and the first player ever to win the award unanimously twice after also doing so in 2021. If you want to count him as a DH, he’s the first hitter to ever win the award without appearing in the field. If you want to count him as a pitcher, he’s the 10th in AL history, joining Justin Verlander (2011), Roger Clemens (1986), Vida Blue (1971), Denny McLain (1968), Bobby Shantz (1952), Hal Newhouser (1945 and 1944), Spud Chandler (1943) and Lefty Grove (1931). Ohtani was never seriously threatened here, but the Rangers duo of Corey Seager and Semien finished second and third in voting, respectively.
A historic season of power and speed unlike any other.— MLB (@MLB) November 16, 2023
Ronald Acuña Jr. is the 2023 National League Most Valuable Player! pic.twitter.com/bW0OMiEoIG
If Ohtani didn’t exist, we’d probably be having more conversations about Acuna Jr.’s current and future place among the game’s all-time greats. The Braves outfielder has dominated pretty much from the moment he broke into the Majors as a 20-year-old back in 2018, but he turned on the rocket boosters this year, becoming the first player in the history of the game to hit at least 40 homers and steal at least 70 bases (he went 41/73, ho-hum). Oh, and he did all that while leading the NL in OPS and leading the Majors in hits and OBP while serving as the engine for one of the most dominant offenses in the history of the sport.
And yet, for a while, it was a very open question as to whether he was even the best player in his own league. Thanks to a torrid August in which he slashed a still-unbelievable .455/.516/.839, Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts entered the final month of the season leading Acuna Jr. in both OPS and WAR — and likely MVP voting. But Betts fell off a bit to end the year, while Acuna Jr. just kept on trucking, hitting .340/.403/.708 with 11 homers and 11 steals over his final 26 games. His consistency was simply remarkable: The lowest OPS he posted in any individual month was a .918 mark in July, and he somehow never went more than two games in a row without recording a hit. Betts’ all-around game and defensive versatility were impressive, but in the end, Acuna Jr.’s offensive numbers were too good to be denied.
Betts will simply have to settle for a second-place finish, the third of his future Hall of Fame career, while teammate Freddie Freeman came in third — narrowly edging out Acuna Jr.’s teammate, Matt Olson, who came in fourth despite an MLB-leading 54 homers and 139 RBI. Acuna Jr. is just the sixth Braves player to win MVP, joining Freeman (2020), Chipper Jones (1999), Terry Pendleton (1991), Dale Murphy (1982 and 1983), and Bob Elliott (1947, back when the franchise still played in Boston).