Could Acuna win NL MVP Award as rookie?

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A reader wanted to know what I thought of Braves rookie wonder Ronald Acuna Jr.'s case for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. My brain quickly jumped from one thought to another.

1. "That's crazy. Acuna has played less than 100 games and probably won't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. And anyway, Freddie Freeman is the closest thing Atlanta has to an NL MVP Award candidate."
2. "Well, maybe it's not that crazy. The NL MVP Award field is wide open this year, Acuna is on fire, and Freeman has slumped in the second half."
3. "Actually, let's examine how crazy this is."

Clearly, Acuna has been electric this year. He entered 2018 as MLB Pipeline's No. 2 overall prospect (behind Shohei Ohtani), got the big league promotion in late April, endured his first injury snafu, and then truly flipped the switch midseason for an ahead-of-schedule Braves team that is a good bet to finish off its first NL East title since '13.

The other day, Acuna became just the seventh player in history to notch a 25-homer season before turning 21, and five of the other six (Eddie Mathews, Orlando Cepeda, Al Kaline, Tony Conigliaro, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott) are in the Hall of Fame.

So, Acuna has been great. But MVP-worthy?

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Remember: Only two rookies in history have won the MVP Award -- Fred Lynn with the 1975 Red Sox, and Ichiro Suzuki with the 2001 Mariners. (Aaron Judge finished second in the AL voting last year). Has Acuna's rookie year been outlandish enough to land him on that short list?

Before we dig into that question, we'd have to make the assumption that Acuna has passed the Nationals' Juan Soto in the NL Rookie of the Year Award race.

Even on the heels of Soto's five-hit, two-homer doubleheader on Tuesday, I would be willing to go there. That's not dismissive of Soto, who is having one of the greatest age-19 seasons in history. In fact, if you go by OPS+, Soto's 148 mark is the highest by a 19-year-old with at least 300 plate appearances.

But Acuna has also had one of the greatest seasons by a 20-year-old.

It's a fascinating NL Rookie of the Year Award race. Here's how they stacked up going into Wednesday:

Acuna: .290 AVG, .368 OBP, .578 SLG, 25 HR, 14 SB, 4.3 bWAR, 3.8 fWAR
Soto: .306 AVG, .421 OBP, .529 SLG, 18 HR, 2 SB, 2.7 bWAR, 3.5 fWAR

Soto's most meaningful edge is in OBP, but you could argue that Acuna has made the bigger impact -- on a likely division winner, no less.

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So let's boldly move forward with an assumption that Acuna will win one of the great rookie races in history (and this is where Nationals fans log off), and let's proceed to the NL MVP Award discussion.

As I said, it's a far-ranging field. As I write this, FanGraphs has 11 guys within 0.8 WAR of each other at the top of its NL leaderboard. WAR is imperfect, and there are other ways to illustrate the congestion, but that's just a quick and dirty way of demonstrating that it's crowded out there.

For a while, I was riding the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter NL MVP Award bandwagon (if only because it serves great homemade salsa). Lately, it feels like Christian Yelich's late-season push for the Brew Crew might be enough to propel him to the honor. But we've still got 2 1/2 weeks left, and that's plenty of time for a hot hitter to leave a lasting impression. The assumption all along is that the NL MVP Award is going to be won with the benefit of a home-stretch surge.

Which brings us back to Acuna, whose NL MVP Award argument is rooted in the fact that he's carried the Braves on his back at this most crucial juncture of the year.

If you want to go down the MVP Award storyline rabbit hole, Braves manager Brian Snitker elevated Acuna to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break, and the Braves haven't looked back, going from a half-game back in the NL East to 6 1/2 games up on the Phillies. Acuna's second-half WAR (3.4), as calculated by FanGraphs, is 1.6 points higher than the next-closest Atlanta player during that span (Johan Camargo), and Acuna has been personally responsible for 21 percent of the Braves' runs created since the break.

The above all speaks to that earlier point about Acuna taking charge at a time when first-half stalwarts like Freeman and Nick Markakis have both taken a statistical step back -- and at a time when the Braves could not afford to regress as a ballclub.

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But how does Acuna fare compared to the league, as a whole, in the second half? He is…

• First in the NL in fWAR (3.4)
• First in homers (18)
• First in OPS (1.118) among those with at least 200 plate appearances
• First in wRC+ (192)

So, the second-half surge makes for a compelling case.

The trouble with Acuna is that he'll wind up right around 110 games played. In a 162-game schedule in a non-strike year, a position player has won the MVP Award with fewer than 120 games played exactly once. That was George Brett in 1980, with 117.

Brett won his MVP Award at a time when voters were still enamored with batting average, as he flirted with the .400 mark that year (he was at .400 as late as Sept. 19, and he finished at .390) and went crazy in July (he hit .494 that month). But when you look back at the 1980 AL MVP Award field and apply other and more modern metrics, backing Brett is still defensible. He had the highest OBP by 27 points, the highest slugging percentage by 67 points, the highest OPS+ by 31 points and, despite the limited games played, the highest WAR by 1.3.

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Acuna's full-season numbers among those with at least 400 plate appearances stack up reasonably well, but obviously not to that level. His entire NL MVP Award candidacy revolves around the second half, sort of like NL trade acquisitions like Manny Ramirez with the 2008 Dodgers, Yoenis Cespedes with the '15 Mets and J.D. Martinez with the '17 D-backs. (Ramirez's fourth-place finish was the highest of any of those guys).

So… could Acuna win the MVP? No. That's crazy. (Indeed, none of our voters, myself included, had him listed in their top three in our latest poll). It's not even a sure thing he'll win the rookie race.

But hey, at least Acuna's second half has been crazy enough for us to consider the question.

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