Unanimous MVPs Shohei, Acuña even make hardware history

November 17th, 2023

There’s good, there’s great and then there’s historic.

What Ronald Acuña Jr. did for the Braves and what Shohei Ohtani did for the Angels in 2023 was historic. And appropriately, two of the biggest stars in the sport were recognized with a historic Most Valuable Player voting result.

For the first time in a voting process dating back to 1931, both MVP honors announced by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on MLB Network on Thursday night were unanimous. Ohtani captured his second AL MVP in the last three seasons and became the first player ever to be chosen unanimously twice, while Acuña won his first NL MVP.

The writers recognized two players who possess peerless profiles -- Ohtani as a two-way unicorn who keeps making the historic look routine, Acuña as a power-speed specialist who rewrote the record books.

This was a fitting cap to Acuña’s groundbreaking 40-homer, 70-steal season that, technically, is not over. He watched the announcement along with family and teammates in the clubhouse of Tiburones de la Guaira, his winter ball team in his native Venezuela.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Acuña said with Hall of Famer and MLB Network analyst Pedro Martínez acting as interpreter. “I’m having a hard time explaining it, but I’m really privileged to be in the clubhouse with my family present, my teammates and everything else going on. I’m extremely happy to have this opportunity.”

Ohtani, who only added to his popularity by conducting his MVP interview beside an adorable dog, became the 29th player to win multiple MVPs since BBWAA began voting in 1931. The only thing that stood in the way of him winning three straight MVPs was a little thing called Aaron Judge breaking the AL single-season home run record last year.

“Obviously, I wanted to win last year, but Judge had a spectacular season, and, deservedly so, he won it,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “So I wanted to come back stronger and try to win this year… My goal was to come out on top, and I guess all my hard work paid off.”

Acuña and Ohtani garnered all 30 first-place votes. The Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman finished second and third, respectively, in the NL; the World Series champion Rangers’ Corey Seager and Marcus Semien finished second and third, respectively, in the AL. As always, voting was conducted at the conclusion of the regular season.

Though both voting results were widely anticipated, that should not mask how striking and spectacular the on-field results provided by these two talents truly were.

The “40-70 Club” did not exist prior to 2023. Neither, in fact, did the “30-60 Club” or the “40-50 Club.”

But in the season’s final weeks, the 25-year-old Acuña -- who joined Miguel Cabrera and Jose Altuve as the only Venezuelan-born players to win the MVP -- kept creating and christening new clubs, landing on 41 homers and an MLB-leading 73 steals. There had never been a player in MLB history to have a 40-homer season and a 70-steal season in his career. The Braves’ right fielder did both in one season.

Acuña, of course, achieved this fantastic feat in a new rules environment that aided and abetted basestealers with pickoff limits and bigger bags. But none of the 13 other players to hit 35-plus homers this season had even 21 steals, let alone 70. Acuña was in a world all his own while logging 159 games played in the leadoff spot for a Braves offense that finished the season with the same team weighted runs created plus mark (125) as the vaunted 1927 Yankees.

What’s more, Acuña was, according to research by The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, the first player to lead his league in hits (217), runs (149), on-base percentage (.416), OPS (1.012) and total bases (383) since Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski with the 1967 Red Sox. The only others to do it were Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909 and 1915), Rogers Hornsby (1921, 1922 and 1924) and Stan Musial (1948) -- Hall of Famers, all.

Acuña became the Braves’ eighth MVP and first since Freeman won the award in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

As if he hasn’t already hit enough homers and swiped enough bags for one year, Acuña is back at it in Venezuela.

“The reason I’m doing it,” he explained, “is because last year I had the opportunity to play and a lot of people got to watch me and playing over there helped me a lot. There’s no better place to do it than the same place I started last year.”

This is the seventh time an Angels player has won the MVP, though Ohtani claims it at a time when his 2024 whereabouts are unclear.

Ahead of arguably the most fascinating MLB free agency in the history of that process, Ohtani took even his unique status to a new extreme. For in 2023, he was not just an elite hitter and an elite pitcher, as he had been in his 2021 MVP year and in his 2022 runner-up finish. The 29-year-old Ohtani was actually, by several important measures, his league’s absolute best hitter. The designated hitter captured the AL home run crown (44) for the first time, had the league high in on-base percentage (.412) and total bases (325) and led MLB in slugging percentage (.654), OPS (1.066) and OPS+ (184).

Ohtani did the above while also logging a 3.14 ERA, 142 ERA+ and 167 strikeouts in 132 innings across 23 starts on the mound.

All told, Ohtani’s bWAR mark of 10.0 was the best of his career and 2.6 more than any other AL player. With his pitching season cut short by an elbow issue and his batting season cut short by an oblique injury, Ohtani did all of that in 135 games played -- the fewest ever for a 10-WAR player. Ohtani achieved the AL home run title despite playing only three games and hitting zero homers in the month of September. The missed time and his Angels’ continued struggles to take advantage of his achievements in the standings did not deny Ohtani his second MVP.

“I felt like I had a really good balance this year, both offense and pitching-wise,” Ohtani said. “Obviously it was unfortunate I wasn’t able to finish the season healthy. But other than that, I was happy with the season I had.”

There has never been a player like Ohtani, and there had never been a season like the one amassed by Acuña. In 2023, these players made history. Now they’ll have the hardware to go with it.