Former No. 1 and No. 2 prospects capture MVP rare air

November 17th, 2023

Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. made history on Thursday when they were announced as the unanimous American League and National League MVPs, respectively.

It marked the first time two players who were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list went on to earn MVP accolades in the same year.

In 2018, Ohtani was the top overall prospect and Acuña stood at No. 2.

The writing was already on the wall for the Japanese All-Star as he arrived stateside in 2018 and began his MLB career in Anaheim -- posting a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP and a .203 BAA in 10 starts as a pitcher, while compiling a slash line of .285/.361/.564 with 22 home runs and 10 stolen bases over 114 games as a designated hitter.

Acuña was coming off an incredible 2017 campaign in which he climbed three levels of Atlanta’s system and was hitting the cover off the ball at Triple-A Gwinnett, so it was really just a matter of when (and not if) the Braves would call upon him as he continued to shine during big league camp in '18. So it came as little surprise that Acuña only played in 23 games in the Minors that season before making his debut in The Show, turning into a perennial “must-see” player.

Going back to MLB’s first rankings in 1999, there have been only three instances in which top-five overall prospects won MVP awards in the same year. But in each of those cases, their rankings were not from the same campaign.

Two years ago, Ohtani and the Phillies’ Bryce Harper took home the hardware, with Harper having held the No. 2 prospect distinction in 2012. Going back to 2016, the Angels’ Mike Trout (No. 1 in 2011) and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (No. 2 in 2015) were named most valuable in the AL and NL, and before that, Trout and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (No. 4 in 2008) were their respective league’s best in 2014.

The rarity of such distinctions goes to show how difficult it can be to live up to the hype of being the top guy. There have been 11 instances since 1999 in which a former top-ranked prospect in baseball has gone on to win an MVP Award, but that list consists of only six players:

2023: Shohei Ohtani (2018)
2021: Ohtani
2019: Mike Trout (2011)
2016: Trout
2014: Trout
2010: Josh Hamilton (2001)
2009: Joe Mauer (2004)
2007: Alex Rodriguez (1995)
2005: Rodriguez
2003: Rodriguez
1999: Chipper Jones (1991)

Here are past MVP winners and their highest overall prospect rankings (NR indicates the player was not ranked overall):

AL: Shohei Ohtani (No. 1, 2018)
NL: Ronald Acuña Jr. (No. 2, 2018)

AL: Aaron Judge (No. 21, 2015)
NL: Paul Goldschmidt (NR)

AL: Shohei Ohtani (No. 1, 2018)
NL: Bryce Harper (No. 2, 2012)

AL: José Abreu (NR - not eligible)
NL: Freddie Freeman (No. 17, 2011)

AL: Mike Trout (No. 1, 2011)
NL: Cody Bellinger (No. 13, 2017)

AL: Mookie Betts (No. 14, 2014)
NL: Christian Yelich (No. 10, 2013)

AL: Jose Altuve (NR)
NL: Giancarlo Stanton (No. 3, 2010)

AL: Mike Trout (No. 1, 2011)
NL: Kris Bryant (No. 2, 2015)

AL: Josh Donaldson (NR)
NL: Bryce Harper (No. 2, 2012)

AL: Mike Trout (No. 1, 2011)
NL: Clayton Kershaw (No. 4, 2008)

AL: Miguel Cabrera (No. 12, 2003)
NL: Andrew McCutchen (No. 8, 2008)

AL: Miguel Cabrera (No. 12, 2003)
NL: Buster Posey (No. 4, 2010)

AL: Justin Verlander (No. 5, 2006)
NL: Ryan Braun (No. 17, 2007)

AL: Josh Hamilton (No. 1, 2001)
NL: Joey Votto (No. 34, 2008)

AL: Joe Mauer (No. 1, 2004)
NL: Albert Pujols (No. 42, 2001)

AL: Dustin Pedroia (NR)
NL: Albert Pujols (No. 42, 2001)

AL: Alex Rodriguez (No. 1, 1995)
NL: Jimmy Rollins (No. 31, 2001)

AL: Justin Morneau (No. 27, 2004)
NL: Ryan Howard (No. 30, 2005)

AL: Alex Rodriguez (No. 1, 1995)
NL: Albert Pujols (No. 42, 2001)

AL: Vladimir Guerrero (No. 2, 1997)
NL: Barry Bonds