Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mookie Betts have been neck-and-neck as the NL MVP favorites over the past week or so. Betts had one of the great Augusts of all time in order to put his name in legitimately in the race.
NL MVP Race: Table of Contents
This post will focus on the one aspect that feels like it gets overlooked in MVP voting: Steals.
Acuna vs. Betts: Do Steals Matter in MVP Voting?Embed from Getty Images
In 2018, two of the top three finalists had 20+ steals. Christian Yelich finished with a 1.000 OPS and 22 SB… he won, btw.
Javier Baez finished in second… I’m serious… Javier Baez finished second in voting. He had a great season with a .290 average, 34 homers, 111 RBI and 21 steals.
Third place Nolan Arenado had a higher average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage than second-place Baez. He had more homers and runs as well. Both players were great defenders. Baez’s 21 steals had to have made an impact on the voting. Arenado had just two.
That same season, Lorenzo Cain hit just 10 homers with an .813 OPS. Nick Markakis was the only non-pitcher to finish with a lower OPS than Cain in 2018. Markakis hit .297 with a .366 OBP but only hit 14 homers and that’s not good enough to be considered any higher than 18th.
Lorenzo Cain only slugged .417 (lower than Markakis) that season, but he finished seventh in MVP voting. How? Dude had 10 HRs and 38 RBIs. Well, defense is always a factor but Cain also stole 30 bases. He scored 90 runs. He wasn’t going to win MVP, but steals certainly influence voting.
MVP Voting Acuna vs. Betts: The Problem with OPS
The problem we see in the media right now is everyone claims to be thinking analytically because they look at OPS and OPS+ instead of traditional numbers. OPS+ is not a be-all, end-all statistic. It is a good way to measure and compare players based on their abilities to get on base and slug. However, it double-counts hits. Average is a part of the OBP equation already and slugging percentage is a form of batting average that factors in the amount of bases a hit is worth.
On-base percentage tells us the percentage of plate appearances a player gets on base. Slugging is a skewed percentage that tells us how many total bases a player gets per at-bat (not including PAs). Adding them together and calling it a stat is a little arbitrary to me. Because we do it with every player and we understand the meaning (OBP and SLG) then we understand who it rewards. But it’s not the final answer.
National League MVP – Acuna vs. Betts: Why do Steals Matter in MVP Voting?
This is not complicated. If you look at slugging percentage, you know a double is worth more than a single. Why is that? Easy answer: a runner on second base is more valuable than a runner on first.
David W. Smith had an article published in the 2006 Baseball Research Journal in which he used 29 years of data to show the probability of leadoff hitters scoring based on which base the reach.
When a leadoff hitter reached first base with a single or a walk, he scored 40% of the time. When he reached second, he scored 64% of the time.
If Acuna hits a single or walks to leadoff an inning, then steals second, he has increased his probability of scoring from 40% to 64%. It does not matter how he got there, all that matters is that he’s there. Steals matter. This doesn’t even include the things that are difficult to measure. The uneasiness on the mound when Acuna is leaning and false starting. The threat of the speed can cause problems.
Why Ronald Acuna’s Steals Give him the Edge in NL MVP Voting Over Mookie Betts
I like to look at this as a Getting Bases perspective. Total bases is a way to figure slugging percentage. It’s not really the total bases a player earns. It’s total bases earned from hits divided by at-bats. It excludes walks, intentional walks, hit by pitches, and other ways of getting on base. You know what else it excludes? Steals. Of course it does, why would it include it? My question is, why wouldn’t it?
Let’s look at this from a GETS BASES Percentage. Maybe we can call it REAL total bases. How many bases does a player get per PA? That’s an important stat and less arbitrary than OPS. It takes subjectivity out of assessing the value of stolen bases.
So if we use the basic slugging percentage rules then add walks, IBB, HBP, and SB, we get a better picture of REAL TOTAL BASES.
The equation looks like this:
(1B + (2B * 2) + (3B * 3) + (HR * 4) + BB + IBB + HBP + SB)
In that case, Acuna beats Mookie Betts by quite a bit. I ran the numbers after the first two games of the Dodgers-Braves series and Acuna had 458 bases gotten and Betts had just 406.
Acuna had .74 bases per plate appearance and Betts had just 0.69.
Steals Matter! Let me know your thoughts on my thoughts in the comments below.