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The MVP candidacy of Matt Carpenter

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Although he has received some votes in the past, 2016 may be the year where Matt Carpenter merits serious consideration for National League Most Valuable Player.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, following his first season as a full-time starter, Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter finished 4th in MVP voting. But even after finishing so prominently in the balloting, he was never a serious candidate for winning it: he received zero first place votes and received only six second place votes during an election in which Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen ran away with the award.

In 2014, following a position switch, the now-third baseman Carpenter had another good season but one which ultimately did not garner any votes on any of the 30 ten-name MVP ballots. And in 2015, Carpenter again received MVP votes, but not nearly enough to seriously contend for the award, finishing 12th and receiving no votes higher than 7th.

But after several seasons on the periphery of MVP candidacy, so far in 2016, Matt Carpenter has the most compelling case for actual first-place votes that he has ever had.

Among position players in the National League, Matt Carpenter trails only Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. He currently ranks fifth among NL position players by Fangraphs WAR, trailing Bryant by just 0.6 wins.

And while a WAR leaderboard is a good start when analyzing MVP candidacies, it may not be a great place to end. Despite increased focus on advanced baseball statistics over the years, there remains a fundamental disagreement over how much to weigh certain measures when assessing player value, hence multiple WAR measures exist. In order to have a legitimate MVP case, a player should probably be near the top of the WAR leaderboards (which Carpenter is), but there is some margin for error in assessing overall value.

One very prominent feather in Matt Carpenter's cap this season is that, to this point, he has been the best hitter in the National League. Among batters in either league with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Carpenter trails only David Ortiz and Mike Trout by wRC+.

Carpenter's Triple Crown stats do lag somewhat behind. His high though not league-leading home run total is a fair reflection of his home run power, but his .286 batting average, which ranks only in the teens among qualified NL hitters, is deceptively low: his on-base percentage, which gives proper consideration to Carpenter's absurdly high walk rate, ranks second only to Paul Goldschmidt. And his total number of RBI, a metric dramatically influenced by the quality of batters ahead of him in the order, is suppressed by his typical presence as the Cardinals' leadoff hitter: while somebody like Jay Bruce gets to bat with on-base behemoth Joey Votto in front of him, Carpenter usually bats after the pitcher.

Among the most valuable position players in the National League, Carpenter's offensive numbers not only hold their own, but they frequently surpass those of his peers.

PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals 330 16.7% 17.6% .296 .419

.581

166 3.4
Nolan Arenado, Rockies 341 10.6% 12.0% .296 .372 .578 133 3.4
Kris Bryant, Cubs 344 10.5% 23.0% .279 .369 .564 146 4.0
Daniel Murphy, Nationals 320 5.3% 10.3% .351 .394 .588 158 3.4
Marcell Ozuna, Marlins 314 7.6% 20.4% .314 .366 .554 144 3.2
Corey Seager, Dodgers 343 8.5% 17.5% .299 .359 .540 141 3.7

Of course, looking exclusively at offensive stats (which all of these are, with the exception of fWAR) is misleading, as baserunning (at which none of these players are particularly notable) and defense (at which there is somewhat significant variance among these players) also contribute to a player's value. Hence David Ortiz, the best hitter in the American League by a healthy margin, barely cracks the top ten in AL position player WAR. He doesn't play defense (and is a horrendous baserunner, to boot), and he can only be so valuable with his (extremely potent) bat.

Of the six players in the preceding table, Carpenter has been the worst defensive player by Defensive Runs Saved. Daniel Murphy has also been mediocre in the field, while the other four have handled the glove well, particularly Arenado. But Carpenter's defensive value goes beyond what his statistics say.

The statistics say that Matt Carpenter is a below-average defensive third baseman and a below-average defensive second baseman. And I believe both of these things to be more or less true: Carpenter may be passable in the field, but he is not the MVP candidate inviting comparisons to Brooks Robinson. But the key to Carpenter's defensive value is his versatility, not his virtuosity.

When Matt Carpenter moved from third base to second base before the 2013 season, it allowed the team to fully utilize his bat while keeping David Freese in the lineup. When he moved back to third base in 2014, it allowed to team to utilize Kolten Wong. And in 2016, when Carpenter moved back to second base, it was to enable the Cardinals to play both Jhonny Peralta and Aledmys Diaz.

There is value in Matt Carpenter's adequacy, just as there was value in Miguel Cabrera's transition to third base earlier this decade. In one of the most contentious MVP races in recent memory, Cabrera concluded his 2012 season with a Triple Crown, and the highest wRC+ in baseball, while Mike Trout had a commanding lead in WAR, 3 wins per Fangraphs and 3.6 wins per Baseball Reference, thanks to considerable advantages in baserunning and fielding.

But unaccounted for in WAR was that Miguel Cabrera provided additional value to the Detroit Tigers by playing at third base, when he would have been better suited to play first base or designated hitter. WAR involves positional adjustments already, but in the context of his team, which signed Prince Fielder to play first base before the season, he was even more important. A superior player in Fielder was able to play rather than the lesser player who would have taken third base had Cabrera not done so.

This isn't to say that Cabrera's value in this regard makes up for a 3-plus win difference: if I had an MVP vote, I would have picked Trout. But it warrants being part of the overall discussion; it did in 2012 and it does in 2016.

Unfortunately, I can't go any further without mentioning Clayton Kershaw.

Clayton Kershaw has been the most valuable player in the NL this season by bWAR and fWAR and it hasn't been especially close. Despite a mediocre start against the Pirates on Sunday, Kershaw has a 1.79 ERA and 1.68 FIP on the season, and despite murmurs whenever a pitcher is an MVP candidate that the award should go to a position player, but when Kershaw was a candidate in 2014, 60% of voters were willing to use a first-place vote on him, and 90% put him in the top two. No voter put him lower than fourth.

Assuming Kershaw's upcoming DL stint is not an especially long one, he will be the MVP front-runner, and it would be hard to argue against him. But among the position players (and non-Kershaw pitchers, for that matter), Matt Carpenter has a perfectly valid case for strong MVP consideration.