By John Perrotto
ST. LOUIS -- It was a very quick and unscientific poll of four Cardinals fans standing outside Busch Stadium, nearly four hours before the start of Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday night.
The question: Who should win the NL Most Valuable Player award this season?
Fan No. 1: "Yadi."
Fan No. 2: "Yadi."
Fan No. 3: "Yadi."
Fan No. 4: "Yadi."
Yadi, of course, is Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, and he played a big part in leading St. Louis to 97 regular-season wins, which tied the Boston Red Sox for the most in the major leagues. The 31 year old batted .319 with 12 home runs, 80 RBIs, a .359 on-base percentage and a .477 slugging percentage in 541 plate appearances while also throwing out 43 percent -- 20 of 46 -- of runners attempting to steal and committing just four errors and three passed balls in 131 games behind the plate.
And yet Molina might not have been the MVP of his own team. According to Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, Molina ranked second on the Cardinals with a 5.7 mark. Second baseman Matt Carpenter was at 6.6, making him almost a full win more valuable.
While manager Mike Matheny won't say whether he thinks Molina or Carpenter is his team's MVP -- reminiscent of the old saw about how a parent can never pick his favorite child -- he does think Carpenter should be a contender for the league-wide award.
"I don't think you can leave him out," Matheny said. "He's won over the respect and admiration of the league, the fans and absolutely this clubhouse."
Carpenter led the NL with 126 runs scored, 199 hits and 55 doubles while also hitting .318 with 11 home runs and 78 RBIs in 717 plate appearances. Carpenter, who had 632 of his plate appearances from the top of the batting order after center field Jon Jay didn't cut it as the leadoff hitter, also had a .392 on-base percentage and a .481 slugging percentage.
While Carpenter is flattered when someone mentions he has put together an MVP-type season, he is quick to say that was not his motivation during the regular season and is certainly not on his mind as the Cardinals have advanced to third consecutive National League Championship Series.
"It's definitely quite a thrill to hear your name in the same sentence with some of these guys," Carpenter said. "But for me, there's nothing bigger than winning. That's why we play, that's why I play is to win ballgames, and we're in a position now where we have a chance to reach our ultimate goal of getting to the World Series and winning it. It's just a lot of fun, a lot more fun than if I had a good season numbers-wise but was sitting at home because we weren't in the playoffs."
Thus, it is not a surprise when Matheny says, "Matt buys into team-first as much as anyone."
Proof of that comes in what makes Carpenter different than the other players who are likely to be among the top vote getters in the MVP balloting, such as Molina, Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen and Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw: Carpenter was able to compile such impressive statistics while making the difficult conversation from four-corner utility player to everyday second baseman. He made 128 of his 154 starts in the field at second base in 2013 after having played just 18 innings at the position during his previous four professional seasons, all with the Cardinals last year.
It seemed like a major gamble when the Cardinals decided to make Carpenter their starting second baseman. However, he held his own by making just nine errors and scored just slightly below average in the advanced metrics with a minus-2.0 UZR/150, according to FanGraphs.com.
"I think he's been as good as you could ask of anybody at second base," Matheny said. "He's made all the routine plays and wowed us quite a few times.
"What we saw a couple of things going into this that made us believe that this would work out. One is that he has good hands. We saw him at third base and he had a good first step, had good instincts on the infield. The other thing is that we saw a guy with non-stop work ethic. You can't outwork Matt Carpenter. You put that combined with good teachers like (Cardinals third base coach) Jose Oquendo, you have all the foundation that you need to make a case that this kid could do this."
Carpenter was surprised when Matheny came to him late last season and said he had a "homework assignment" for the winter, which was to work on learning second base. Carpenter spent his days taking ground balls from his father, Rick, a longtime high school coach in Texas, and Todd Whiting, now the head coach at the University of Houston and assistant at Texas Christian when Carpenter played third base for the Horned Frogs. In spring training, Carpenter became Oquendo's pet project.
"It's something we put a lot of work in," Carpenter said. "I can't say enough good things about Jose Oquendo. He's an amazing teacher, really understands the game and what it takes to be an infielder. He's played all the positions, knows the ins and outs with all of them. He was a big help. Together, we were able to make it work."
It is easy to wonder if 2013 is as good as it will ever get for the 27-year-old Carpenter, who could be moving back to third base next season if the Cardinals trade or non-tender David Freese and believe second base prospect Kolten Wong is ready to play every day. Carpenter came to the major leagues without pedigree as he was drafted in the 13th round of the 2009 amateur draft as a fifth-year senior at TCU, received just a $1,000 signing bonus and was never considered a top prospect while coming up through the farm system.
Matheny, though, points out that Carpenter had a solid rookie season in 2012 -- .294/.365/.463 with six home runs in 340 plate appearances -- and the Cardinals feel his 2013 was just another step in his progression as a player.
"I knew about what everybody else on our staff knew, that he was a difference maker," Matheny said. "We put him in the lineup at different times last year, and he did give a different look to our club with just the way that he was relentless in his at bats.
"He's relentless in his work and takes his at bats the same way. He sets the tone for our offense. When he's going about it the right way, I don't think there's anybody that takes a tougher at-bat in the league."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.