How reigning MVP Acuña can get ... even better

January 26th, 2024

You wouldn’t think that could possibly have a better season in 2024 than he just did in 2023, because all he did last year was unanimously win the National League Most Valuable Player Award while putting up history’s first 40/70 season – and even if that last part was clearly aided by the new rules, it’s still 40/70. What could be better than that?

It’s not exactly reasonable to expect more, but it might not be out of the question, either. Usually, when we see players put up what seems like a career season, it’s A) fueled by what appears to be a wave of good luck at the right time, or B) at such an out-of-character level that it’s impossible to ever repeat, or C) it’s at an age where it’s more likely that the player’s best days are behind them than ahead of them.

But A) isn’t the case; it’s actually the opposite. B) isn’t true either, because while Acuña indisputably had an excellent year, it was really only the steals that were wildly out of line with his past performance, and C) well, he only just turned 26 in December.

All that means that it’s not hard to wonder if 2023 was one of a number of great years, not the best year he’ll ever have. It’s at least possible there’s more in there, anyway. How might we get there?

1) He didn’t benefit from good luck. He might have underperformed.

What we mean by “good luck and potentially over- or under-performing” can be found in the case of Cody Bellinger, who had a strong surface-level season (.307/.356/.525, a 133 OPS+), yet one that comes with a whole lot of questions about durability and repeatability given his below-average hard-hit rate, as well as other factors.

No such questions exist for Acuña, who arguably should have gotten more than he showed last year. Acuña posted a .428 Weighted On-Base Average, or wOBA, last year, second only to Shohei Ohtani. (It’s like on-base percentage, if OBP counted extra-base hits as more than singles.) But his expected wOBA, based on Statcast estimates of his quality of contact, was actually .460, meaning he was 32 points short in reality. That’s the third-largest negative gap of any qualified hitter. If you prefer batting average, it’s the same idea: He hit .337, but posted an expected .357, based on the quality of his contact.

(By comparison, Mookie Betts was estimated to have received almost exactly what he earned, posting a .416 wOBA off a .407 expected wOBA, meaning there was likely no good or poor fortune. You can say the same for Acuña’s Atlanta teammate Austin Riley, who had a .363 wOBA and a .365 expected wOBA. On the other side, Bellinger’s .370 actual mark far exceeded his .327 expected mark, which is part of his slow market this winter.)

This doesn’t always or even often just mean "bad luck," to be clear. Sometimes you hit a ball 118 mph to the gap and see that a rookie outfielder finds himself in the right place at the right time.

Sometimes one of the best defensive outfielders of the 21st century shows you exactly why he’s earned that label.

And sometimes, you hit a ball that would have been out of 27 other parks in baseball, except not the one you’re in that day – and to add insult to injury, you hit it so hard and to one of the better defensive left fielders in the game that you end up with merely a single.

Whether that’s “bad luck” or “that’s baseball” is up to you, because it’s long been popular to say that it’ll all even out in the end, and that’s not always true.

What is true, however, is that 31 different times last year, Acuña hit a barrel – that’s a batted ball with the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle, the kinds that have an average north of .500 and slugging above 1.500 – into an out. It wasn’t just the most of 2023; it was the most barreled outs of any season since tracking began in 2015.

Nine times last year, he hit a ball farther than 390 feet that was either an out or a single, also the most in baseball. (For context, balls hit 390-plus are extra-base hits more than 85% of the time.)

Now: Does any of this guarantee that he will get more results in 2024? No, of course not, and it’s not like he never benefited from any weakly hit bloops, either. Some of those barrels and 390-plus foot fly balls would have been out if he’d pulled them, rather than sent them to dead center – like when he hit a blast in Colorado at a projected 416 feet that still became an out.

But as great as Acuña’s 1.012 OPS just was, it’s not that out of character with the .989 OPS he put up from 2020-21. (We’re willing to look past the underwhelming 2022, when he was working his way back to speed following his serious knee injury.) What it basically comes down to is that the underlying metrics tell you there might be more there, as opposed to Betts or Riley, who had neither good nor poor outcomes, or Bellinger, who might be due for a step back.

2) He can tighten up that defense.

This might come as a surprise given how many highlight clips there are of Acuña throwing out runners foolish enough to test his cannon of a throwing arm, but the advanced defense metrics did not look kindly upon his 2023 season. Statcast’s Fielding Run Value had him as minus-4 runs, and Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved said minus-2 runs, and the reasons were the same. Look at the Statcast breakdown of how we got to the minus-4:

That’s not just or even primarily about errors; it’s about plays that should have been made that weren’t, like this or this or this or this:

Or this, even though he compensated with an outstanding throw.

We show you these negative plays to make a point: This could be good news.

That’s because this isn’t like asking a poor defender such as Kyle Schwarber to improve his fielding, because that outcome seems unlikely given the skills that Schwarber does and does not have. This isn’t about a lack of speed or skill that just can’t be overcome, like if you were to put a catcher in the outfield. While Acuña’s speed is indeed down from before the knee injury – where it was once elite level, it was in the 65th percentile last year – it's still above average. And some of the plays he didn't make were quite possibly in part about protecting the knee in less urgent situations.

The defensive shortcomings are not a physical limitation, which means that they aren't anything that an immensely talented young player couldn't be able to limit.

Consider this: If Acuña had managed to post a merely average range score in 2023, his WAR would have gone from 8.3 to approximately 8.9. If he’d gotten to even slightly above average, he’d be more like 9.3 WAR. Above average might be too much to ask, but average is not. Simply eliminating the balls lost in the sun or getting slightly better reads – we say these things as though they’re easy, obviously, which they are not – would go a long way toward an even more valuable season.

3) He can have a better success rate on the bases.

One controversial aspect of Acuña’s 2023 season was that even though he did steal 73 bases – which is just so many bases! – he ranked only sixth in FanGraphs’ baserunning value metric, half as valuable as Corbin Carroll. That’s because while Acuña led the sport in steals, he also had the second-most times being caught as well, and one time being caught is more damaging than one time being successful is valuable. (He was more good than great on baserunning plays not involving steal attempts, as well.)

What to watch for here is really more about second base than third, because while the stat line will say “Acuña was 14-for-16 stealing third,” the truth is that he was not thrown out stealing third by a catcher even once. (The two failed attempts were both when he was picked off by the pitcher.)

Instead, he was picked off first base five times, which all go into the dozen times he was thrown out on attempts to swipe second base – the second-most in the Majors. While it may be tempting to think that for a follow-up, Acuña should go into 2024 trying to steal even more, the more valuable way would be to steal more efficiently, even if that means fewer steals overall.

Consider this: By just the stolen base component of the baserunning metric, there was essentially a three-way tie for first place. Acuña stole more bases than Carroll or CJ Abrams, but look at the success rate:

  • Carroll: 54 SB // 5 CS         (92% success) 
  • Acuña: 73 SB // 14 CS        (84% success)
  • Abrams: 47 SB // 4 CS        (92% success)

No one, obviously, would be upset if Acuña simply repeated the same stolen base numbers, but trading in a few bases taken for fewer outs given up would be more valuable – especially when you consider the quality of the batters who hit behind him in the Atlanta lineup.

As we said, it’s not fair to expect more from Acuna. But it’s not unreasonable, either, based on his age, talent, and the season we just saw him produce. Besides: We haven’t even considered the repercussions of him bringing that left-handed swing into a game, either. There might just be more we haven't even seen yet.