When the MVP finalists were announced the other day I was shocked, repeat: shocked, that Matt Carpenter was not among the top three National League candidates. Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt were obvious choices, as were the three American League selections (Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis), and Carpenter seemed to be a no-brainer, too. But instead, Yadier Molina? Can't believe it.
Carpenter might have been the Most Valuable Player in the National League this year. He led all of baseball in runs scored (126), hits (199) and doubles (55) while batting .318/.392/.481. The Cardinal's leadoff hitter for most of the season, Carpenter was an on-base machine at the top of the order and a big reason why St. Louis led the NL in runs scored this past year.
Molina played a big part in that too. He batted .319/.359/.477 while providing his typically stellar defense behind home plate. FanGraphs and BR both agree he was worth a bit more than five and a half wins above replacement this year. Carpenter, on the other hand, was worth closer to seven. That's not a huge difference, but it's not an unsubstantial one, either.
Since their offensive numbers are eerily similar (check those batting lines again), I suspect the difference in value is probably due to their discrepancies in games played. Molina played 136 games which is a good amount, especially for a catcher, but it's 84 percent of the season. He missed the first two weeks of August with a sprained right knee and St. Louis went 6-8 in his absence. Carpenter, who played 157 games, was out there almost everyday.
That matters. Unless a player is so ridiculously productive on a per-game basis that you have to forgive time lost to injury (Mickey Mantle in 1962 is a perfect example of this) then playing time really should be a factor. It's part of the criteria used to select MVPs because unless you're a crappy player, you can't help the team by sitting on the bench.
So with Carpenter holding advantages in hitting, playing time and baserunning, the only way Molina comes out on top is if you give him a big boost for his contributions on defense. I'm more than comfortable giving Molina extra credit for not just handling catching duties, but being probably the best defensive catcher in the game today (those six straight Gold Gloves speak for themselves). I'm just not sure the difference between he and Carpenter is all that great. After all, it's not like Carpenter's a first baseman or a corner outfielder. He primarily played second base, a premium up-the-middle position, and also spent some time at the hot corner. That kind of versatility--the ability to handle multiple positions--is special too.
I'm not trying to take anything away from Molina here. He's a tremendous player, one of the best, and is clearly worthy of serious MVP consideration. I had him eighth on my imaginary awards ballot, and in retrospect that feels a bit too low. But I had Carpenter third and was debating whether he or Goldschmidt deserved to be runner-up behind McCutchen. I think if you asked people who was the most valuable player on the Cardinals this year, the majority would probably respond Carpenter. It's close. Both are indispensable. But when push comes to shove, there's no getting around the fact that Carpenter had the superior season.