ST. LOUIS — Too bad balloting for the NL MVP award closes before the playoffs begin. If voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of American had another week, they would have been able to watch the top three candidates on the same field at the same time during the Pirates-Cardinals NL Division Series.
Maybe then they would cast their votes for the right man. Based on what I’ve been reading and hearing, that isn’t happening. Andrew McCutchen, the man who makes the Pirates go, appears to be the popular pick and he certainly makes a worthy candidate. So does the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who entered spring training trying to win the second base job and ended the season as the runs and hits leader on the NL’s best offensive team.
But the most deserving candidate is Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, and by a sizable margin. You just need to look beyond the numbers to see this.
You have to see how Carlos Martinez pitches after a visit from Molina. This happened against the Brewers after the Cardinals took a 1-run lead into the bottom of the 10th inning last month.
Martinez, just 21 and facing perhaps his biggest situation yet as a major-leaguer, fell behind 2-0 on the first batter he faced. Out went Molina for a discussion during which he did all the talking. Martinez promptly retired the Brewers in order to earn his first win, an important one for the Cardinals who had dropped a 16-inning gut-wrencher the night before.
This was the prototypical example of what makes Molina so valuable — and often overlooked. There are no statistics to measure the impact he made that night and on so many others when he led the Cardinals’ young pitchers through trying situations.
“People are always asking what makes (Molina) so valuable besides the statistics,” manager Mike Matheny said after that game in Milwaukee. “That was one of those things there’s no category for what he just did right there. He just continues to do things to help us win that amaze all of us.”
You begin to understand and appreciate this when you hear Cardinals pitcher after pitcher rave night after night about the game Molina just handled for them. This is more than shutting down running games and turning balls into strikes with his pitch framing. Molina’s forte is calling a game that allows his pitcher to focus on one thing: Throwing the ball to his mitt.
“You look at him, he puts the sign down, you throw the ball where you’re told,” right-hander Lance Lynn says.
On a team that coaxed 36 wins from 13 rookie pitchers this season — and includes six rookie pitchers on its NLDS roster — the impact of having Molina behind the plate becomes even greater.
“He makes them feel like they’re 10-year vets,” said Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, who will be throwing to Molina in Game 1 Thursday afternoon. “Each one of those guys pitches a different game and Yadier knows their game better than they do almost. He has a feel for what works that day. And he also has five Gold Gloves.”
At the All-Star break, Molina also was leading the NL in hitting with a .341 average and being talked up as an MVP front-runner. If he had not tailed off, perhaps he would have not lost ground to McCutchen. But a sprained right knee cost Molina 15 days on the disabled list and, combined with the grind that comes with catching five or six times a week, Molina hit “only” .280 after the break.
His numbers for the season do not match up with McCutchen or Carpenter’s. But they’re not as far off as some voters might think. Molina finished with 80 RBIs while hitting mostly fifth or sixth; McCutchen had 84 out of the three-hole for the Pirates.
Molina also finished with a .319 average to .317 for McCutchen. The Pirates center fielder, however, scored more runs (97-68), hit more homers (22-12) and posted a superior OPS (.911-.836).
But if the voters were thinking just offense, then Carpenter would rate the edge. With 126 runs, he scored 16 more than any other player in the majors. He also was first in hits (199) and doubles (55) and drove in 78 runs with an impressive slash line of .318/.392/.418.
“The MVP to me is the one guy you take out of your team that has the biggest impact as a loss,” Wainwright said. “I feel like if you took any of those guys — Allen Craig would have been in the talk if he had not been hurt — you’re going to have a weak spot.”
None of the three were missed more than Molina when they weren’t in the lineup. The Cardinals were two games under .500 when he didn’t play, compared to 34 over when he did. When McCutchen and Carpenter sat, their teams went 4-1.
That Molina missed far more games, 26, is the most valid argument against his MVP case.
On the flip side, you could say he deserves extra credit for not missing more. When he returned from the disabled list in mid-August, the Cardinals weren’t sure how much Molina would catch the rest of the way. But from that point, only one catcher in the NL caught more innings. For the season, Molina still caught more innings than any NL catcher.
General manager John Mozeliak admits he was surprised that Molina missed only five of the team’s final 43 games.
“But he felt that he could go and clearly he could,” Mozeliak said. “He’s an MVP-caliber player and when he’s feeling right, getting him in there is obviously an asset to us.”
An MVP asset if you ask me. Perhaps you will agree if you watch him on the same field with two other leading candidates during the NLDS. You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.