Tuesday, June 25, 2024

NL MVP race pits Dodgers Freeman and Betts vs. Braves Acuna Jr. and Olson

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The National League MVP award that Freddie Freeman won with the Atlanta Braves in 2020 is stored away safely under lock and key. The plaque – like the Silver Sluggers, Gold Gloves and other awards Freeman has won in his career – is not on display at his home.

The replica World Series trophy he and each of his Braves teammates received for winning the championship in 2021, on the other hand, is there for everyone to see when they visit the Freemans.

It is a manifestation of what Freeman says are his priorities in the game.

“It’s hard for me to think about individual things while you’re still trying to achieve the team goal,” Freeman said. “When I won it 2020 – yeah, it was 60 games but it felt good. No denying it.

“For me, if I need to go 0 for 4 and move the guy to third base four times, I’m going to do that. That might hurt my stats but I want to win a World Series. I want to win a World Series here. If everything works out and individual awards happen, great. But I want another ring.”

He might get one.

The Dodgers are once again running away with their division and threatening to overtake the Atlanta Braves for the best record in the National League. Since June 19, they have the best record in the majors (32-13).

None of this would be happening without MVP-caliber seasons from the duo of Freeman and Mookie Betts, and Freeman might have to make space to tuck away another MVP plaque.

“If there’s no them, right now then … hate to say what could be,” Jason Heyward said, making a face as if he had just taken a swig of sour milk.

“Freddie and Mookie, having them on this team – if you don’t have them, you don’t know where we’d be. Especially this year when our pitching staff has been banged up.”

But, they are saying similar things in Atlanta about Ronald Acuna Jr. and Matt Olson, the dynamic duo that has driven the Braves to a runaway lead in the NL East and the best record in baseball this season.

This will almost certainly be the first time since 2008 that the top four vote-getters on MVP ballots will be a pair of teammates – Acuna and Olson from Atlanta and Freeman and Betts in Los Angeles. The Red Sox and Twins split the top four spots in the 2008 American League MVP voting – Dustin Pedroia won with teammate Kevin Youkilis third while Twins teammates Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer finished second and fourth.

It almost happened last year when Paul Goldschmidt won the NL MVP award with his Cardinals teammate Nolan Arenado third (behind Manny Machado). Freeman and Betts finished fourth and fifth.

“I think all four of those guys are MVP viable candidates,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of the race among Acuna, Freeman, Olson and Betts. “There’s no wrong answer. I’m obviously biased towards our guys because I see them every day and I see the impact they have on our ballclub.

“It’s the question we all have every year. What constitutes an MVP? That’s the thing. I could say my definition of valuable is what is their value to our ballclub. Or is it to the best player who has the best statistics? That’s why it’s so debated every year. I don’t know how Olson or Acuna affect the clubhouse. I only know their stat line. I know with our guys.”

Acuna’s stat line has put him at the front of the MVP pack for some time now. His .337 average is third in the majors (behind Luis Arráez of the Marlins and Freeman). His OPS (.995) has dipped recently behind Freeman (1.005) and Olson (1.003).

But the eye-catching numbers are his 26 home runs and MLB-leading 55 stolen bases. Acuna is only the eighth player in MLB history to have 25 or more home runs and 55 or more steals in the same season, the first since Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson in 1990. An unprecedented 40-homer, 80-steal season would take a late surge but is not out of the realm of possibility.

The Atlanta angle adds intrigue to the MVP race – particularly when one is reminded of Acuna’s remarks after Freeman left the Braves. In an online interview before last season, Acuna said there was “nothing” he would miss about Freeman and hinted at “lots of clashes” the two had during their shared days in Atlanta.

Acuna later backpedaled on some of the comments, saying it had been “exaggerated” by the media. Freeman downplayed any differences they might have had.

Vying with Acuna now for an MVP award is not amplified by any of their history.

“No. That doesn’t factor in at all,” Freeman said. “I love Ronald. I predicted four years ago he would win the MVP. He’s that good. If he wins this year, it’s not going to be his last. He’s so good, so talented. He’s one of those people when he’s done playing we’re going to be talking about for a long time.

“I said Ronald was the National League Mike Trout four, five years ago. Looking back, I’m like, that’s not fair. I don’t like comparing people. But he was our National League guy. He hits home runs, he steals bases, he can play really good defense. He can do everything. He’s just having an amazing year. He really is.”

If Freeman has something in his favor, it is his remarkable consistency.

He has hit .337 with a .962 OPS against right-handed pitchers, .345 with a 1.098 against lefties. He is the same hitter at home (.333 and .953) and on the road (.345 and 1.056).

He has gone hitless in 26 of the Dodgers’ first 117 games, never more than three in a row. He has nearly twice as many multi-hit games – 48 including 11 three-hit games and four four-hit games.

“I’ve never seen anyone like him. He does not give anything away,” Roberts said. “I’ve never seen a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw as far as how every single throw is with intent. It’s intentional. That’s 110 pitches, 100 pitches a night every fifth day. I’ve never seen anyone play every single pitch on offense and defense, 150 pitches, on the bases, every single night – he doesn’t give away a pitch. One hundred and sixty-two times. I’ve never seen it.”

Heyward nods his head with respect when he is asked about Freeman’s consistency.

“Doesn’t take a play off. Does not take one play off,” Heyward said. “I’m talking as a player. I know fans, writers, all that stuff – everyone has an opinion. But to not take a play off – that’s the hardest thing to do when you’re out there 162.”

Heyward acknowledged that he is obviously biased towards his teammate and friend since the two were teenagers competing in youth tournaments. Then he lists the value Freeman brings offensively, defensively and on the bases on an everyday basis in a lineup that relies on him and Betts to carry the load.

“That’s a tough package to beat,” Heyward said.

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