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(Dale Zanine / USA Today)
(Dale Zanine / USA Today)

The Case for a Co-NL MVP

Since its inception in 1931, Major League Baseball has annually given a Most Valuable Player Award to the single best player in each league, National and American, for that season. Typically, the players who win the awards are the clear-cut favorites, with most people in agreement. However, sometimes there is no clear favorite, with multiple player’s performances laying a claim. Although this is a very rare occurrence, it has happened and brought about historical situations, including the ultra-rare co-MVP. 

The co-MVP has only happened once in MLB history, back in 1979, when Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals and Willie Stargell of the Pirates both won the award. Hernandez led the National League in batting average (.344), runs scored (116) and doubles (48). Willie Stargell clubbed 32 home runs and 82 RBIs in 126 games and was also named the MVP for the NLCS and the World Series. When the voting results were released after the season, Stargell and Hernandez received 216 points each. Although Stargell received 10 first-place votes to Hernandez’s four, Hernandez was the only player on every single ballot, while Stargell was left off of four ballots. When the dust of the seasons settled, both players stood atop the figurative mountain, holding the shared trophy. 

Apart from the 1979 season, no two players have ever shared the MVP award. Twice, two players have shared the Rookie of the Year Award in the NL in 1976 and the AL in 1979. Co-awards in MLB remain extremely rare, but there is a chance to see one in 2023. 

Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuna Jr. have both been having stellar seasons. Both rank in the top 10 in the MLB for runs, hits, home runs, RBI, OBP, SLG, and OPS. Both are elite-level hitters, and both have put up some of the best numbers of their careers. In all likelihood, only one of them will win the MVP award, with the other one just falling short. A case can be made for either of them to win it, but there is a small chance that for the first time since 1979, we could see a Co-MVP award between two generational players. Let’s break down each one’s individual case.

The Case for Ronald Acuña Jr.

For most of the 2023 season, Ronald Acuña Jr. has been the frontrunner for the MVP award, and for good reason. Acuña leads MLB with 73 stolen bases, due in part to the new pitch clock rules, and has become the only player in history to have a 40 home run/70 stolen base season. While Acuña didn’t threaten Rickey Henderson’s single-season mark of 130, Henderson only hit 10 home runs in that season, whereas Acuña finished with 41. For 2023 in total, Acuña led the league in runs, hits, and on-base percentage (OBP), and ranks in the top five in home runs (fifth), batting average (second), slugging (SLG) (fourth), and on-base plus slugging (OPS) (third). Additionally, he ranks in the 96th percentile for arm value and the 98th percentile for arm strength, according to Baseball Savant, and holds an impressive .983 fielding percentage. 

Acuña leads a loaded Atlanta Braves squad that eclipsed 100 wins, clinched its sixth-straight NL East title, and holds home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In all, Acuña had an incredible season on an incredible team. This usually separates players in plenty of past MVP races. However, Acuña’s not the only one of that kind this year.

The case for Mookie Betts

In 2018, Mookie Betts took home the American League Most Valuable Player Award as a member of the Red Sox, the same Boston team that steamrolled their way to 108 wins and a championship. Now on the Dodgers, Betts has a chance to do something that only one player in MLB history has done before: win an MVP award in both the American League and the National League. That distinction currently belongs to Frank Robinson, who won the NL MVP in 1961 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, and the AL MVP in 1966 with the Baltimore Orioles. Betts almost achieved the feat in 2020 but fell just short, coming in second place in MVP voting to his eventual teammate Freddie Freeman. 

Throughout most of the 2023 season, Betts wasn’t the frontrunner for the MVP award. He wasn’t even the favorite on his team. But after a scorching hot month of August, where he batted .455 and had 51 hits, 11 home runs, 30 RBIs, and 35 runs scored in 28 games, Betts catapulted himself to the top of the MVP chart, even edging out Acuña in multiple polls. Although his production cooled off a bit in September, he still remains one of the best players in the MLB, and his numbers speak for themselves. 

If this were any other season, Betts would easily have the MVP award all but locked up. As of September 30th, he has hit 39 homers while batting leadoff for the Dodgers, and his 107 RBIs out of the leadoff spot are an MLB record. Additionally, Betts ranks in the top five in OPS (fifth), runs (fourth), and slugging (fifth). He also ranks eighth in batting average and sixth in home runs, RBIs, and hits. 

Despite his offensive stats not being as strong as Acuña’s, it is important to note one very important characteristic that makes Betts such a strong candidate for the MVP award: his defense. Mookie Betts is a six-time Gold Glove winner in right field, but this season, Betts played above-average defense at three positions. In addition to logging over 700 innings in right field, he’s played almost 500 innings at second base and almost 100 innings at shortstop. He’s recorded nearly 250 put-outs and over 170 assists, and has been a part of 38 double plays. Additionally, he has zero errors in right field, and has a fielding percentage of .935 at shortstop, .991 at second base, and 1.000 in right field. Defensive numbers like these cannot be ignored.

Why both could share the MVP Award

When it comes down to it, the differences between Betts and Acuña are minimal, and one or both of them are going to win the MVP award. When comparing their seasons, Betts has the edge in Wins Above Replacement, but only slightly (8.3 to Acuña’s 8.0). Acuña showed a stronger throwing arm, but Betts was superior with his globe. Acuña headlines a strong Braves team that had eight All-Stars with the best record in baseball, while Betts leads a Dodgers team that wasn’t even projected to win their division, and yet has the second-best record in the National League. If the award looked solely at “Most Valuable,” Betts would likely win the award by a landslide. The Dodgers relied heavily on Betts out of the leadoff spot, and although Freddie Freeman, J.D. Martinez, and Will Smith had standout seasons, without Betts, it’s unlikely that the Dodgers would have had as good of a season as they did. If the award looked solely at who is the best player in the league, Acuña would likely win, due to his impressive accolades, including the first-ever 40/70 season. However, apart from the few distinctions between the two, their production during the 2023 season has been nearly identical, and to find differences between them would be close to impossible. The award is based on many different factors, and the only way to truly know who the MVP is is to wait for the award to be announced. 

In just a few weeks, when the Most Valuable Player is announced, there’s a possibility that, for the first time in nearly 45 years, and only the second time ever, two players could share the coveted award. 

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