ATLANTA — When Ronald Acuña Jr. found out he was a unanimous selection as the National League Most Valuable Player, the Braves right fielder wasn’t in some Miami mansion or Caracas penthouse apartment. He doesn’t roll like that. He’s back in La Sabana, the small village he’s from in Venezuela, where his parents and other family members still live, and where Acuña has returned to play winter ball for Tiburones in his home state of La Guaira.
He found out shortly before his winter ball season debut Thursday that he won the award, receiving all 30 first-place votes. Runner-up Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers received all 30 second-place votes, ahead of Dodgers teammate Freddie Freeman and Braves first baseman Matt Olson, who finished fourth.
“As soon as I got to the league, right away I always knew that I wanted to win MVP,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “It was always a dream of mine, and I’m living a dream come true.”
Acuña, 25, is the second Atlanta player to win NL MVP in the past four seasons, following former Braves first baseman Freeman won in 2020.
Ronald Acuña Jr. is a unanimous NL MVP, fifth different #Braves player to win it since team moved to Atlanta in 1966 (including 2-time winner Dale Murphy) and second in 4 years (2020 winner Freeman finished third this time). Betts was 2nd, ATL’s Matt Olson 4th.
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) November 16, 2023
Tiburones teammates and many family members, including his father and Acuña’s young sons, celebrated with him in Venezuela after the announcement, with the clubhouse briefly resembling the scene of a postseason-clinching win. The current generation’s most popular Venezuelan baseball star showed unbridled joy over winning the award.
“Family is the most important thing to him,” Braves president of baseball operations and general manager Alex Anthopoulos said on the day Acuña became the fifth different Braves player to win NL MVP since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. “Guys have more success and become bigger stars and so on. But to me, he’s the same humble person. And I understand you see him on the field, hitting homers and the swagger and so on, and you think, well, that doesn’t look humble. But he’s a very humble person.”
When the MVP announcement was made on MLB Network, Acuña was about to play his first game of the winter ball season. The game was scheduled for 6 p.m. but was delayed to accommodate both the MVP announcement and a soccer game. (Acuña, after having one of the greatest offensive seasons in MLB history and becoming the first player to have as many as 40 homers and 70 stolen bases in a season, was heavily favored to win the award.)
“It feels great,” he said. “I’m just really thankful for the support I got from the organization and just really happy to be a member of the Braves organization. I just want to thank everyone and the fans as well, for the support that I got the entire season.”
After winning MLB Player of the Year and NL Outstanding Player honors from his peers at the Players Choice Awards two weeks ago, Acuña was a unanimous selection for NL MVP by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Olson was fourth and Braves teammate Austin Riley was seventh. It’s a regular-season award and votes had to be in before the postseason began.
Two other Braves received votes, with Ozzie Albies finishing 16th and Marcell Ozuna 19th. Atlanta led the majors with 104 wins and won its sixth consecutive NL East title before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Division Series for the second consecutive year.
Acuña hit .337 with 41 home runs and 106 RBIs from the leadoff spot and led the majors in hits (217), runs (149), on-base percentage (.416), stolen bases (73) and total bases (383). He also led the NL in plate appearances (735) and OPS+ (168).
He’s just the third player in baseball’s Integration Era since 1947 to lead either league in stolen bases and OPS, joining Hall of Famers Willie Mays, who did it in 1957 and 1958, and Rickey Henderson in 1990.
“A season that he, and only himself, will top again,” said former Braves center fielder Andruw Jones, a 10-time Gold Glove winner. “Forty-plus (homers) and 70-plus (stolen bases) is gonna be tough to come by.”
Acuña became just the fifth member of baseball’s 40-40 club — at least 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in a season — and none of the previous four members had more than 46 steals in his 40-40 season. Acuña alone has done 40-50, 40-60 and, gulp, 40-70.
Jones added of Acuña, whose career he’s followed since he was a 17-year-old minor leaguer: “I’m so proud of him and the man he has become on and off the field.”
The MVP award is the sixth for an Atlanta Brave. Dale Murphy won it in 1982 and 1983, followed by third baseman Terry Pendleton in 1991 and Chipper Jones in 1999, then Freeman, who won in 2020 and went to the Dodgers as a free agent after the 2021 season. That’s the year the Braves won the World Series while Acuña was recovering from ACL surgery on the right knee he tore up just before the All-Star break.
That 2021 injury ended what many thought was shaping up as an MVP season for Acuña. Two years later, he has his first NL MVP award, and Chipper Jones is among those who won’t be at all surprised if Acuña wins it again.
“He’s the most talented player to ever wear the Atlanta Brave uniform,” Jones said in a text to The Athletic on the eve of the MVP announcement. “Scary thing is, I’m not sure he’s reached his ceiling yet! Buckle up Atlanta, it should be fun to watch.”
Many in baseball say Acuña is the most dynamic leadoff hitter since Henderson. He’s also improved his outfield defense, his cannon-like arm in right field preventing many runners from even attempting to take an extra base.
“His maturity has grown a lot in one year and his talent speaks for itself,” said John Smoltz, another former Brave and Hall of Fame pitcher who as a Fox Sports analyst sees plenty of Acuña’s performances. “This year he put both of those things in the right direction, and the sky is the limit of what kind of greatness you can see out of him. Will be the best dual-threat player in the league for sure.”
Before a late-August series opener at San Francisco, veteran Giants outfielder AJ Pollock was asked about the monster season Acuña was having after being slowed by knee pain in 2022.
“Freakish — the ability is freakish,” Pollock said. “I’ve been through injuries, and that’s a whole different ballgame, to test the kind of resiliency you have. Just seeing him come back and not miss a beat, shows the kind of mindset he’s got, too.”
Later on that West Coast trip, after Acuña hit a 454-foot homer at Dodger Stadium that had a 121.2 mph exit velocity — the hardest-hit ball of the MLB season — and an absurdly low 19-degree launch angle, Braves center fielder Michael Harris II said, “To hit it at 19 degrees, 450, imagine if he would have hit it at a 25- or 30-degree angle, how far it would have went. That’s the scary part because he didn’t get under it. He really just hit it on a line and it went 450.”
Told what Pollock said a week earlier about Acuña having freakish talent, Harris smiled and said, “Yeah, very. Very freakish. He’s got a lot in the tank yet that you probably even haven’t seen yet, which is also pretty scary. I mean, I don’t know, he’ll bring some more out the rest of his career, and we’ll continue to be amazed at what he does.”
Acuña has a franchise-record 34 home runs leading off games — 13 on the first pitch — including eight leadoff homers in 2023 when he was the biggest reason Atlanta led the majors with a franchise-record 146 first-inning runs, the most in the majors since 2000. Acuña set franchise records with 54 hits and 41 runs in the first inning.
“I think the term five-tool player gets overused in today’s game,” said Tom Glavine, Hall of Famer pitcher and part-time Braves broadcaster. “However, Ronald is that guy. He’s one of few guys that can beat you with his bat, legs and arm.”
When the Braves reported to spring training, there still were some questions about which version of Acuña they would get. He struggled for much of 2022 with residual soreness and inflammation in his surgically repaired knee. But Acuña said on the first day of camp that he was completely healthy, all the way back. He said that the previous year to convince himself and quell the doubts he had, but he later conceded.
This spring, he said, there really were no doubts. He played for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic during spring training and said he intended to play every game during the season (he might have if not for calf tightness he felt on the same artificial turf field at Miami where he blew out the knee).
“It meant a lot to me to be able to bounce back after I was hurt,” Acuña said. “There was some doubt about the ability, what I could do and what I was able to accomplish. So it meant a lot to me to be able to come back and have the success that I did.”
He showed quickly in the spring that he was back and earned NL Player of the Month in April after hitting .352 with four homers, 13 stolen bases and a .986 OPS while playing every inning of all 27 games. Acuña won NL Player of the Month twice more and never cooled off for any significant stretch, finishing the season with career-bests in most major categories, and his 84 strikeouts were far and away his fewest in a full season.
He displayed vastly improved discipline at the plate all season, reducing his swing-and-miss rate on pitches out of the strike zone by 8.3 percent from 2022 to 2023, the sixth-largest drop among qualified MLB hitters. This while improving his hard-hit rate by 5.5 percent to 55.2, fifth-highest in the majors, and his average exit velocity by 3.5 mph to 94.7, second highest to the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who’s about 70 pounds heavier than Acuña.
Acuna, who’ll turn 26 on Dec. 18, has three guaranteed seasons left on a team-friendly contract that pays him $17 million annually, plus club-option years in 2027 and 2028 for $17 million annually.
Anthopoulos thinks Acuña is the best player in baseball, and is thrilled to know the preternaturally talented right fielder will be a Brave for a long time.
“His core values, everything — he’s the same person he’s always been,” Anthopoulos said. “One thing that always struck me about Ronald from the first year is how close he is with his family. He’s got a real extended family and he’s always close to them — cousins, uncles, everything, even through his rehab and so on. He’s obviously married now and has his (two) kids and he’s an amazing father.”
Outside of Acuña’s parents, siblings and wife, perhaps no one is less surprised than Anthopoulos about Acuña’s offseason, that his itinerary hasn’t changed even though he’s become one of MLB’s true superstars and most recognizable faces.
“I’ve been in baseball for more than 20 years now; this was my 24th season,” said Anthopoulos a former Toronto Blue Jays GM and Dodgers executive. “And I’ve seen a lot of great young players come up, and as they have success, you know, they slowly start to change and so on. But with Ronald, the person, the humility — it’s the same person as when he came up his first year in 2018, in terms of the clubhouse and talking to him and so on. And I say that in a great way. Success hasn’t changed him at all.
“You see clips of him in Venezuela in the winter playing; he loves playing baseball. And you see other clips of him with his kids. I mean, he loves being a father. His kids are the world to him. So those are really great, foundational things to have — love playing the game and love being around family and love family overall. Those are great. You look at it from a GM standpoint, it feels good to know you have someone who’s that grounded.”
(Photo of Ronald Acuña: John Bazemore/Associated Press)