It’s the final week of the 2023 MLB regular season, and there’s still plenty left to be decided. From coast to coast, teams will be battling out for playoff positioning, but a spot in October isn’t the only thing still on the line — we also have some individual awards to hand out.
In some cases, those awards races were put to bed weeks ago; Shohei Ohtani isn’t even in the Angels’ clubhouse these days but will waltz to a second AL MVP. For others, though, this week is an excellent chance to deliver one heck of a closing argument. Nowhere is that truer than in the race for NL MVP, where two outfielders on World Series frontrunners are putting up some historic stats. There can only be one, though, so let’s settle it once and for all: The Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. or the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts?
NL MVP race: Ronald Acuna Jr. or Mookie Betts?
In order to really get a sense of the tale of the tape, let’s break this down into three parts: offense, defense and baserunning. Thanks to a September heater — he’s slashing .330/.388/.727 so far this month, with 10 homers and six steals — Acuna Jr. would appear to have nudged back out in front after Betts took the lead in August; Atlanta’s leadoff man leads the league in both raw OPS (1.010) and is tied with Betts for the lead in adjusted OPS+ (167). Acuna Jr. also cranked his 40th homer over the weekend — he’s now just two swipes away from becoming baseball’s first-ever 40/70 man — and has the lead in most major offensive categories save for doubles (where Betts ranks a distant second behind Dodgers teammate Freddie Freeman).
In all, Acuna Jr. has been slightly more dynamic here, getting on base more often and doing more damage when he makes contact, so he gets the nod.
Edge: Acuna Jr.
Here’s where the case becomes a little bit clearer. Acuna Jr. is solely a right fielder — possibly because the Braves want to try and protect his surgically repaired knee — and he’s a relatively average one, with a spectacular throwing arm but limited range (again, possibly because picks his spots in an effort to hold up physically over a long season).
Betts, on the other hand, has long been among the best defensive right fielders in the sport ... and that was before he added second base and shortstop to his plate in 2023. That defensive versatility has been huge for the Dodgers this year: After losing Gavin Lux in Spring Training, L.A. was left scrambling a bit in the middle infield, and the ability to slide in Betts at both spots — where he’s certainly not elite but is at least passable — allows them to put their best lineups on the field consistently, using the platoon advantage that have helped make their offense produce more than the sum of its parts would suggest. Betts would have the slight edge here if he and Acuna Jr. both spent all their time playing the same position; his ability to moonlight on the infield, however, makes this category an easy call.
Acuna Jr. has the edge here, but it’s probably not as big as you’d expect given their respective stolen base totals (68 vs. just 13 for Betts, whose 30-steal days appear to have been left behind in Boston). Still, while Betts may not be nearly as aggressive (or quite as athletic) as he was a few years ago, he’s among the very smartest baseball players in the game today — and that intelligence shows up on the basepaths, where he’s long excelled at taking the extra base at a far more successful rate than league average. Those little things are why Fangraphs’ catch-all baserunning metric have a more moderate gap between Acuna Jr. (13th overall) and Betts (32nd), and I tend to agree.
Edge: Acuna Jr.
Acuna Jr.’s offensive numbers are truly eye-popping, and we’ll rightfully be talking about his 2023 season for years to come. But I can’t help but come back to Betts’ all-around contributions — it’s very, very hard to imagine the Dodgers cruising to another NL West title (and pushing Atlanta for the NL’s top seed) without Betts, both because he’s one of the very best hitters in baseball and also because his versatility has such profound knock-on effects. L.A. has been able to coax meaningful contributions out of guys like Jason Heyward, Chris Taylor and Amed Rosario — seriously, look at the Dodgers’ collection of healthy position player talent and tell me that’s a top-three offense on paper — and Betts has been a huge reason why, shielding them from unfavorable matchups and allowing the Dodgers to put their best team on the field, one through nine, every single day. That, to me, is the definition of value, and I think Betts has narrowed the offensive gap enough that it should (just barely) carry the day.