ST. LOUIS -- With just a few games left in the season and a playoff spot clinched, Cardinals' third-base coach José Oquendo hits groundballs before a recent game against the Nationals to Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso and Rafael Furcal. They field ball after ball. Then Oquendo approaches Carpenter and Oquendo squats down, stepping back into a throwing motion while explaining one of the many possibilities of a routine groundball that could come Carpenter's way at second.
From the lonely winter practices Carpenter spent on his dad's high school baseball field this past offseason learning how to play second base, to a player with a .321 average and the most runs, hits and doubles in the National League, Carpenter has not only redefined himself as a solid second baseman but is in consideration for NL MVP. How did this transformation happen?
"I take a lot of pride in kind of being self-made, being a guy that is kind of an afterthought to even making the big leagues and then let alone even becoming an All-Star and playing second base," Carpenter said. "There have been points in my career where people have said, 'He'll never be good enough to play third, let alone second.'"
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable Player means. Even the BBWAA admits this. So we argue. We criticize the voters. All of baseball enthusiasts define valuable in a different way. For manager Mike Matheny, he says he's been trying to say to anyone who is willing to listen that Carpenter's season is MVP-worthy.
"I don't know where we'd be without him," Matheny said. "I mean, having that leadoff hitter and having the kind of season that he's having and what he's done defensively too, it's just off the charts as far as how good he has been."
When the Cardinals told Carpenter in the offseason that they wanted him to play second base he immediately went to work on it.
"I had a lot of dialogue between myself and José Oquendo and we just continued to keep in contact," Carpenter said.
Carpenter came to spring training 10 days early and Oquendo said he taught Carpenter every possible routine play he might come across. While the reaction time needed to field the ball at second is not as quick as it is at third, Oquendo said there were still a lot of nuances for Carpenter to learn.
"You still got to understand the hitter, our pitchers, and what we're trying to get to that hitter, and watch the swing," Oquendo said. "The swing can change from week to week as we see them and you have to make adjustments to that. All the hitters have a routine spot where they hit the ball the most. So we put them as close as we can to those positions. Now, they have to watch signs, they have to watch how good the pitchers are throwing that day and how good the hitter is that day. It's all mentally."
Instead of acquiring a second baseman or keeping Carpenter in a utility role, the Cardinals essentially said to Carpenter we want you and we believe in you.
"The thing is going into this I knew I was going to have to be good a second or it wouldn't have worked," Carpenter said. "I had confidence in my ability as a hitter and I thought that I could go out and show that I can be a productive major league hitter but second base was unknown. It goes back to my personality and the way that I went about this. I didn't just want to become an adequate second baseman; I wanted to be a good one and I wanted to help our team win."
He's done that. Among NL position players, Carpenter's 6.7 WAR ranks fifth on Baseball-Reference, behind Andrew McCutchen (8.0), Carlos Gomez (8.0), Paul Goldschmidt (7.0) and Andrelton Simmons (6.8). He's third on FanGraphs, behind McCutchen and Gomez.
Matheny said all season long Carpenter has made both extraordinary and routine plays at second while having a consistent approach at the plate.
"He's a catalyst for us," Matheny said. "He's actually becoming a leader and he's somebody that we want our younger players watching and emulating. ... I know the fans are big fans of not just who he is is and what kind of player he is but how he plays the game. You know, it's been impressive to watch and he should be very proud of what he's accomplished."
People around baseball ask if Carpenter -- a 13th-round pick out of TCU -- was suppose to be this good and the answer is in the Cardinals' secret weapon: Identify talent, recognize a personality striving for perfection, saturate the player with good coaching and find a fit. Instead of defining valuable for the player the Cardinals trust that the player will define what valuable means. Carpenter was willing to not only accept his new position but to give the team everything he had.
"The way I'd like to be known as is the guy who is self-made and worked his way into this thing and it wasn't given to him, and he earned it," Carpenter said.