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2023 Fantasy Baseball Year-in-Review: Ronald Acuna Jr.

Ronald Acuna Jr. - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, MLB Injury News, Betting Picks

From the time Ronald Acuna Jr. burst onto the MLB scene in 2018 as a 20-year-old, he's shown that he had all the tools needed to put together an MVP-caliber season. In 2023, he finally was able to put it all together in order to bring home his first NL MVP award in unanimous fashion.

In 2019, he came in fifth place in MVP voting but never got going in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. In 2021, he was on pace for a historic year before tearing an ACL 82 games into the season. In 2022, he never quite looked fully recovered from the ACL injury and put together a somewhat mediocre season by his standards.

But in 2023, he appeared to be completely healthy. After being drafted as a consensus top-three pick in fantasy baseball leagues, Acuna delivered managers a stat-stuffing fantasy season for the ages on his way to the MVP hardware. Let's take a look back at those numbers and see how he was able to produce such a prolific offensive season.

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Laying the Groundwork for an MVP Campaign

Acuna has been one of the best base stealers in the game over the past several seasons; however, the MLB implemented some rule changes that allowed him to take his skill to another level in 2023. Firstly, the base size was increased from 15 inches to 18 inches, and there are many ways this can give the base stealer a bit more of an advantage. Also, pitchers were limited to two disengagements, which can give the base stealer another advantage, knowing that the pitcher will likely not attempt a third pick-off throw.

Does stealing 73 bases make you an MVP? Of course not, just ask Rickey Henderson, who stole more than 70 bases in a season on seven occasions during his long career but came away with just one MVP award (in a season where he stole less than 70). It was the total package that made Acuna's season great, so let's look at his final stat line and compare it to his 2022 season:

The HR and RBI totals alone are impressive, but the 149 runs scored are the most since Jeff Bagwell scored 152 runs in 2000. Prior to Bagwell's season, you have to go back to 1949 to find a season when 149 runs or more were scored; Ted Williams scored 150 times that year.

As you can see from the above table, Acuna's OBP increased 65 points year-over-year, but his walk rate increased just slightly in 2023 (+1%). Looking at the data, it becomes apparent that Acuna was able to increase both his OBP and his batting average by reducing his strikeout rate dramatically (-12.2%). How did he do that, you ask? He simply changed his approach at the plate, using more of the entire field rather than pulling the ball.

In 2022, Acuna pulled 50 of his 124 hits to the left side of the field (40.3%); in 2023, Acuna pulled just 74 of his 217 hits (34.1%). Trying to pull too much leaves a hitter vulnerable to offspeed pitches -- being "out front" of a pitch -- which results in swings and misses, and eventually strikeouts. The increase in contact in 2023 resulted in a higher BA and SLG, and as such, a historic number of RBI for a leadoff hitter (106) were also tallied. Had it not been for Mookie Betts, Acuna would have set the single-season record for RBI by a leadoff hitter.

40/70 and the Case for MVP

Sure the rule changes in 2023 helped Acuna get to the magical 40/70 season, but this season would have been special anyway had it just been a 40/40 season. His stats in 2019 told us it was possible -- if not a likelihood -- that someday he'd get to 40/40, as he went 41/37 that year. But the combination of power and speed is a rarity, and the last time anyone accomplished the feat was Alfonso Soriano in 2006. Before that, just Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez accomplished it, and they all, well, you know...

But it wasn't a 40/40 season, it wasn't a 40/50 season, it wasn't a 40/60 season -- it was a 40/70 season! But it wasn't just that, it was all of this:

The "Betts for MVP" camp would say that Betts had the same fWAR as Acuna, had more RBI than Acuna, and his versatility on defense made him technically more "valuable" than Acuna. But if it's defensive comparisons you want, why not take into account Acuna's cannon for an arm, which prevents runners from taking an extra base to put themselves in scoring position, or turns sacrifice flies into regular fly-outs? This article from MLB.com breaks it down, and Betts isn't listed.

What about the Braves winning their division wire-to-wire? Part of it has to be attributed to Acuna's consistency throughout the season:

There may have been an argument for Betts in August sometime, but good thing you have to play the entire season before the votes are counted, as Betts' bat went cold to end the year. Acuna on the other hand consistently hit between .300 and .350 month-to-month all season long, which helped Atlanta finish with the best record in baseball.

Fantasy Baseball Expectations for Ronald Acuna Jr. in 2024

After such a massive campaign in 2023, managers should expect Acuna to go off the board with the first pick in 2024. But all too often, fantasy managers draft based on a prior year's statistical explosion, only for a player to regress and not provide an equivalent return on investment. So can Acuna deliver another season that justifies a first-overall selection? Yes! I would argue in most cases the answer is no, but in regards to Acuna, even with some regression, he'll still produce a statistically better season than the second-best option.

Assuming full healthy seasons for all, are any of the players being drafted behind him, such as Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodriguez, Corbin Carroll, or Mookie Betts, capable of delivering results across all statistical categories to the extent Acuna can? How about Trea Turner or Kyle Tucker?

Witt and Rodriguez probably have the best chance for an elusive 40/40 season, but can they collect as many RBI and score as many runs in their respective environments? Carroll probably falls short in the HR department, and Betts will fall short in the stolen base department.

The only one listed with the best chance to put up an "Acuna-lite" season is Kyle Tucker in the Astros lineup. He's just 26 years old and I think there's a bit more power and speed potential in him to get to a 40/40 season, and can get close to the RBI, R, BA, and OBP totals. But let's be honest, you're not taking him over Acuna. So, fantasy managers with the first pick, rejoice! In 2024, Ronald Acuna Jr. will be your selection and he will reward you handsomely for entrusting his services.



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