St. Louis Cardinals

Here’s how Matt Carpenter can win the MVP race. And here’s why he might lose it.

Matt Carpenter has turned around a slow start in which he batted just .155 in May. He currently is batting .260 and leads the Cardinals with 15 home runs.
Matt Carpenter has turned around a slow start in which he batted just .155 in May. He currently is batting .260 and leads the Cardinals with 15 home runs. AP

Can a player win the MVP award on the strength of three great months, with a fourth month in the offing?

If you want Matt Carpenter to add hardware to his trophy case, you’d better hope so.

Granted, we have almost exactly a month left in the season, and much can happen for Carpenter to put an exclamation point on what has been his best – and yet, strangest – year in a Cardinals uniform.

Carpenter, hitting .140 with three home runs on May 15, has batted .317 with 28 home runs the next three months

He leads the league in homers (34), is tied for the league lead in doubles (38), and first in extra-base hits (75). He is third in runs scored (87), second in slugging percentage (.579), seventh in on-base percentage (.385), and second in OPS, on-base and slugging percentage combined (.963).

Breathtaking for a player who had to look up to see a .150 batting mark before Memorial Day.

The tale of two seasons has been much the same for the Cardinals, who have clung to Carpenter’s coattails as they’ve climbed to the top of the National League wild card race, and four games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central race.

Interim manager Mike Shildt has had something to do with that, as well as what has become the best young starting rotation in the league, along with a rebuilt bullpen.

But it all begins with the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter, and as they continue to win his MVP chances continue to grow.

Here’s one take on Carpenter’s chances to overtake the other candidates in the NL MVP race:

Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

Why he could win it: No NL hitter has been hotter than Carpenter since the middle of May, and no NL team has had a better winning record in that span. If you think the MVP choice should be tied to a team’s showing in the win-loss column, Carpenter fills that bill. As well as the Cardinals have played since Shildt took over from Mike Matheny on July 15 – going 25-12 – Carpenter has been at the center of that.

Why he might not win it: MVP voters may not be able to overlook his miserable start, and he continues to be no better than an average (and often less than that) defender. A growing concern not altogether erased by Sunday’s game: Before that four-double game, he had gone just 5-for-32 – three singles and a double -- since he was hit on the hand by a pitch Aug. 15 in Washington. And because he bats leadoff, he doesn’t have the RBI totals of the other top MVP candidates.

Bottom line: To win the MVP, Carpenter has to continue his torrid hitting and may need other help to prove his worth – from his teammates. His candidacy will be boosted if the Cardinals can overtake the Cubs for the NL Central title. His case carries less luster if they only qualify for a berth in the winner-take-all wild card game. And his chances will be far less if the Cards fall by the wayside the last five weeks.

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

Why he could win it: Freeman has been the most complete and consistent MVP contender all season, hitting .313 with 20 homers and 78 RBI for the resurgent Braves. They’ve led the NL East most of the year after being a doormat for much of this decade, and Freeman is the major reason why.

Why he might not win it: Freeman was considered the leader in the clubhouse through the All-Star Break, but Carpenter’s dramatic turnaround has lessened the spotlight on the Braves first baseman. There’s something to the most recent impressions for the voters – two baseball writers in each NL city – as they turn in the ballots before the start of postseason play.

Bottom line: If Carpenter can get right again and builds on his dramatic resurgence, the race will be close. And it may come down to which team has a better record at season’s end.

Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

Why he could win it: The third baseman flashes with the glove and the bat, on his way to his sixth consecutive Gold Glove while hitting .311 with 31 home runs and 90 RBI.

Why he might not win it: Typical of many Rockies players, Arenado’s home-away split is dramatic. He’s hitting .356 at Coors Field, with 17 homers and 48 RBI. On the road, he’s hitting 87 points lower. (And guess what? Except for the two writers in Denver, many of the MVP voters will only see his road performances in person.) Plus: He’s just a .272 hitter against right-handers – that figure is .399 against lefties – and that might hurt his candidacy.

Bottom line: He’s finished fourth, fifth and eighth in MVP voting the last three seasons. This year might mark his breakthrough to the top spot on the ballot.

Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

Why he could win it: Some writers think the MVP should go to the best player on the best team; if that’s the yardstick, then Baez will get significant consideration. He leads the league with 97 RBI, with 28 home runs and a .296 batting mark. He and Arenado are the best defenders on this list, but prowess with the glove does not often enter into the writers’ thinking.

Why he might not win it: Baez, who made the All-Star Team for the first time this year, is a relative newcomer to national prominence; in the past he has been overshadowed by some of his more prominent teammates, including Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He’s emerging from their shadow with a breakout season, but it may not be enough for writers used to looking at other candidates from years past.

Bottom line: If the Cubs separate themselves from the rest of the NL field –their 76 wins are three more than the Cardinals, Milwaukee and Atlanta – then Baez will get more MVP love. As it is, he’s regarded as one of the strong pieces on a deep ballclub with lots of contributors, and that may work against him.

Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

Why he could win it: If you think the most dominant pitcher in the league should get MVP consideration in addition to the Cy Young, there’s no better option than Scherzer. He is 16-6 with a 2.13 ERA on an underachieving Nationals club, with a startling 244 strikeouts in 181 2/3 innings. Both of those totals lead the league; he’s pitched six innings or more in all but one of his 27 starts this year, and has been in the game to get the decision in all but five of those starts.

Why he might not win it: If you think winning is a important component in the MVP vote, that works against Scherzer. The reasoning goes like this: How valuable can he be if the Nationals are an underachieving sub-.500 club, sitting 8 ½ games back in third place in the NL East?

Bottom line: The Nationals are one of the biggest disappointments in the league this year, and Scherzer is battling the notion that a pitcher – unless his season is historically singular (i.e. Bob Gibson in 1968) shouldn’t figure in the MVP conversation. The thinking: Four days out of five, a starter has no impact on the game that day. Another way to look at it: Scherzer has had a direct impact on only 27 of the 128 games played by the Nationals this year.

Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers

Why he could win it: Cain, hitting .307 with nine homers and 32 RBI, has been the best player on a Brewers team that has stayed in the division and wild card race all season. His power numbers are in line with his career totals, and he’s made a splash returning to the Brewers after seven seasons with Kansa City.

Why he might not win it: He’s had a good season, not a great one, and it doesn’t stack up against other more deserving MVP hopefuls.

Bottom line: Cain’s candidacy will come down to the Brewers’ finish in the playoff race; if they get in, he’ll get more votes. If not, he’s likely to fall by the wayside.

***

My best guess? If Carpenter and the Cardinals keep on keepin’ on, he’ll be the odds-on favorite by the end of the season, when writers vote. If he falters or one of the other candidates catches fire, it’ll be the closest MVP race in years.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985.


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