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How Have Recent MVPs Performed in Spring Training?

Ronald Acuna playing for the Atlanta Braves; CC by License 2.0

Everyone knows the saying about Spring Training: these games don’t matter. What is the reasoning behind this saying? Well, the games really do not matter. There is no trophy to win or bragging rights to earn. In fact, it is common to see the weakest regular-season teams perform the best in spring training games. 

The time spent in Arizona or Florida before the season is for clubs to lock in, preparing for the marathon that is the MLB regular season. There are some incentives for superstars across the league to try in spring training, but it seems every year that at least one player goes down for the season because of an injury sustained in a meaningless game. So, why try?

Taking a look at the last three (two American League, one National League) Most Valuable Players from the regular season reveals a trend among these award-winners: a good spring training leads to a good season. In 2021, it was Shohei. In ‘22, Judge, and in ‘23, Acuna Jr. Each of these players posted absurd stats in monster preseasons. Is the secret to an MVP award a great spring training? Probably not. However, it is still worth looking at each player’s performance to try and give some meaning to these otherwise meaningless games. 

Before jumping into stats, any player who has a great spring is not an immediate frontrunner for MVP in their respective league. For example, 2024’s spring training in Arizona has Nick Ahmed of the SF Giants hitting .625 in eight at-bats with two home runs, good for a 2.042 OPS. Unfortunately, Ahmed is not going to win the NL MVP in 2024. The point made above and the subsequent points below are mere observations of the former MVP’s outstanding spring training statistics. 

Shohei Ohtani (2021)

Shohei Ohtani won the AL MVP award in 2021 riding a wave of dominance both at the plate and on the mound. Coming off an extra weird 2020 season where he got the second season-ending surgery of his career, Ohtani had a lot to prove in the ‘21 regular season. What better place to start a redemption arc than in spring training? Everyone knew about the potential for Ohtani. His ceiling is perhaps the highest the game has ever seen. It was just a matter of putting his hitting and pitching together for an entire season’s worth of production. 

First, Ohtani’s hitting in 2021 spring training was absurdly impressive. He slashed .548/.571/1.032, good for a 1.603 OPS in 15 games and 31 at-bats. He also launched five home runs and collected eight RBI. Hitting well over .500 over a 15-game span is impressive on its own. The wildest stat over this 15-game sample is the 1.032 SLG, meaning Ohtani totaled over one entire base per at-bat. 

Interestingly enough, Ohtani’s innings on the mound were disappointing. In only 10.1 innings, Ohtani gave up 14 earned runs on 15 hits and four home runs to opposing hitters. His ERA was 12.19, and opposing batters hit .326 against him. Ohtani, however, would go on to have his best, most consistent season on the mound that year (until 2022 rolled around). Interestingly, his hitting transferred so well into the regular season while his pitching certainly did not. 

Ohtani’s MVP season saw him start 23 games on the mound, pitching to a 3.18 ERA in 130.1 innings. He struck out 156 batters in those innings and went 9-2 in the win-loss columns. His hitting impressed even more, proving to the baseball world he was able to pitch and hit at elite levels at the same time in a large enough sample size. He slashed a .257/.372/.592, good for a .964 OPS in 537 at-bats. These numbers are reflected in his 46 home runs and 100 RBI. He also stole 26 bases, an unprecedented number from a guy who could throw 100 MPH on the mound. The value of this season from Ohtani cannot be emphasized enough. The MVP votes reflect this as well, as Ohtani won the award unanimously. Before all of that happened, Ohtani had a great spring.

Aaron Judge (2022)

Aaron Judge had a monster season in 2022. He was a part of one of the most exciting MVP races in the last decade. His opponent, Shohei Ohtani, was arguably having a better season in 2022 than he did in his 2021 MVP campaign. In fact, many people were discussing the possibility of a co-MVP being awarded to both players. Judge was able to win the award on the back of his record-breaking home run numbers. He clubbed 62 home runs, breaking the single-season AL record. Judge’s dominance was astounding. Tuning into any Yankee game during the regular season left a viewer with a very high chance of seeing Judge blast a ball into the bleachers. In many ways, Judge was the entire Yankees offense in 2022. Taking him out of the lineup calculations left a very mediocre group of hitters. This fact, paired with breaking the home-run record, led Judge to earn the MVP award. 

This record was broken on the back of an extremely impressive spring training by Judge. He truly set himself up for regular-season success in the 11 games he played in 2022’s spring training. ‘Video game numbers’ is an appropriate way to describe the stats Judge put up in just 32 spring training at-bats. He hit .406/.472/.875, good for a 1.347 OPS. On a rate basis, it’s worth pointing out that this season was Judge’s best spring training. He also has consistently had monster spring trainings throughout his career, perhaps a testament to the caliber of player Judge has established himself as. 

Judge had the best season of his career in 2022. On top of the 62 home runs, he collected 131 RBI and slashed .311/.425/.686, good for a 1.111 OPS in 570 at-bats. That type of sustained production has not been seen since Barry Bonds’ playing days. Speaking of Bonds, Judge’s ability to draw walks took a huge step forward this season. He drew 111 walks and even earned himself 19 intentional walks, further emphasizing the fear he struck into pitchers across baseball. All of these stats started with a crazy-good spring from Judge. It’s even crazier that he came somewhat close to those spring-training stats in the regular season eben with over 570 at-bats.


Ronald Acuna Jr. (2023)

The most recent MVP winner also had himself a spring to remember in the year he took the award home. While not quite on the level of the spring performances of the players above, Ronald Acuna Jr.’s 2023 spring training was the best he had since 2019. In the 2023 spring, the bigger bases and pitch clock rules were in full effect, causing widespread panic about how these changes would affect the game. Little did fans know, Acuna would go on to have the first 40-70 season in MLB history, fully capitalizing on the newfound ease of stealing bags. In fact, his stolen base count of 73 in this season was by far the most of his career. Acuna had 107 stolen bases before 2023 in his entire career, with his best season seeing him swipe 37 bags. It was clear there was a big change happening in MLB, and Acuna was the first player to take full advantage of it.


Ronald’s spring training was also very successful. In his 11 games played, he tallied 10 hits and slashed .313/.421/.500, landing him a .921 OPS in 32 at-bats. Notably, Acuna did not have any increase in stolen bases during this time, a surprising fact considering he would go on to steal so many in the regular season. What is most impressive about these stats is the fact that over Acuna’s 643 at-bats in the regular season, he improved on almost every single one.


Similar to the guys above, Ronald had the best season of his career in his MVP year. He was able to stay on the field for over 120 games for the first time since 2021. In his 159 games played, he hit .337/.416/.596, earning a 1.012 OPS. Like said before, the spring training stats were just a taste of what was to come for Acuna in his regular season. While certainly not bad, his spring training at-bats, and the stats produced during them, were nothing when comparing them to the season Acuna would go on to have. However, hitting .300 in spring meant hitting well over .300 in the regular season for Ronald. It can be argued that his skills were fine-tuned during the spring of 2023. 


All of the MVPs above had good to phenomenal spring training stats from the year where they won their respective awards. Of course, it's easy to go back and look at the athlete once they have won the award. However, it is still interesting that each player had very successful preseason games before going on to win the award. Using this pattern of a great spring from a star player who then wins an MVP, I predict that the AL MVP for the 2024 season will be Juan Soto. The newest star in pinstripes is having himself a spring. Although he has just nine at-bats, he has three home runs, a 2.616 OPS, and a .667 batting average. If he keeps this up, who says he can’t follow the steps of the players above and take home the prestigious award?

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