Column: Building the case for Carpenter

St. Louis second baseman has been league’s least-heralded most valuable player.

On Sunday night against the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter did what he usually does.

He walked. He got two hits. He drove in a run. He scored a run. It was an almost mundanely average performance for Carpenter, whose relentlessly productive season has set the bar so high that a 2-3 night with a homer feels like just another punch-in, punch-out day at the office.

The fact that a night like Sunday has become so commonplace is why Carpenter should be the National League Most Valuable Player.

Andrew McCutchen, the talented Pirates center fielder, will win the award because he is the only identifiable star on a playoff-bound team that hasn’t been playoff bound since the year I was born. He will win the award because his combination of power and speed (20 home runs! 27 steals!) opens eyes, occasionally drops jaws and reels in love from the sabermetrics world. He’s had a very good season. But he shouldn’t win the MVP.

At .319 (batting average) / .404 (on base percentage) / .511 (slugging percentage), McCutchen’s line is impressive, and there’s no doubt he’s been the Pirates’ best player. But the way that team is designed forces the question: Is McCutchen its most important piece?

The answer to that is a simple no. The Pirates have more than one MVP. Pittsburgh is third in the National League in team earned run average, second in hits allowed, second in runs allowed and second in opponent batting average. Six members of the Pirates’ staff sport sub-3.00 ERAs, including reliever Mark Melancon, whose 1.30 ERA in 70 appearances is so small he could probably slip through airport security with it in his pocket.

That city hasn’t had a staff this dominant in decades, which is the reason it hasn’t reached the postseason in 21 years. The Pirates will be there this year, and their pitching staff is why. That’s their MVP.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have received good enough pitching to be a playoff team (they sit near fifth in all those team stats listed above), but their most resounding feature is their offense. Carpenter has been the one that makes it go.

Slice it, dice it and extrapolate it all you want, the best thing a batter can do when he steps to the plate is get a hit, and the best thing he can do once on base is score a run. Carpenter has been the best at doing those things, and it’s not even close.

Carpenter leads the league in runs, hits and doubles (his 54 two-baggers are the most by a left-handed hitter in Cardinals history, a 113-year span that includes a certain Mr. Stan Musial). He’s third in the league with a .324 batting average and is in the top ten in triples and on-base percentage as well. (All stats as of Sunday.)

McCutchen has driven in 82 runs to Carpenter’s 76. But McCutchen has batted predominantly out of the three-spot in the lineup, where managers place their best hitters behind the thinking that they will come up with men on base. McCutchen has batted with men in scoring position 30 more times than Carpenter, who bats leadoff and posted just a .291 average. Carpenter’s average in those situations: .415. He’s been a significantly better run producer even with nine less home runs.

Carpenter is the reason guys like Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina have runners to drive in. The Cardinals aren’t a playoff team without Carpenter.

Full disclosure: I am not a Cardinals fan. Last fall I wrote about attending a playoff game at Busch Stadium and rooting against them. The Cardinals have always beaten my teams. They have, for years, been ripping my off-red heart out.

But, still, I believe Carpenter should win the award running away. Or at least walking.

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