Lost in the contentiousness and controversy of the race for American League Most Valuable Player honors is that it's not even the most interesting debate of the two MVP awards that will be handed out on Thursday evening. Rarely in recent memory has there been a more up-in-the-air awards race than the one for the National League MVP as voted on by the Baseball Writers' Assocation of America.
The wide-open race might even open the door for a surprise winner. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had a brilliant season and staked a claim to an award that would have been difficult to imagine back in the spring.
Ryan Braun followed up his 2011 MVP season with a 2012 campaign that was very nearly as good. Andrew McCutchen, who looked like a runaway leader at midseason, posted a breakout season as the star of a surprise Pirates team. Catcher Buster Posey seems to be the favorite thanks to his elite offense at a premium position, not to mention his role as the focal point of the Giants' offense.
The quietest candidate, though, may very well be the best. Molina combined superb offense with otherworldly defense, serving as the two-way linchpin on another playoff team in St. Louis.
"He has everything that you would ask for from a catcher defensively," said manager Mike Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove winner as a catcher during his playing days. "And then there are some things offensively people didn't think he would be able to do, and that was just enough motivation for him to figure out how to do it. And that's the makeup of a Yadier Molina. I know Buster has to have a lot of consideration as the Most Valuable Player, but from where I sit I don't know how Yadier Molina couldn't be in that conversation, as well."
By any definition of value, Molina rates highly.
The old-school eye test and classic baseball-card numbers? Check. Molina is by acclamation an elite defender, and he hit .315 (fourth in the league) with 22 homers, 12 steals in 15 tries, a .373 on-base percentage and a .501 slugging percentage.
Advanced metrics? Check. He was fourth in the NL in wins above replacement as measured by BaseballReference.com.
Contribution to a winning team? Check, check, check. A Cards team again racked by injuries once again fought its way into the playoffs with a late charge, and Molina was a critical part of it. He hit .321 with runners in scoring position, and pretty much anyone around the Cardinals would not hesitate to name Molina as the club's most indispensable player.
"You could talk all day about how special Yadi is," said pitcher Adam Wainwright. "I think the big thing is that he gives you confidence in many different ways. Guys get on base, you know you can bounce balls. You know you can throw balls to the corners and he's going to make them look like strikes. He's going to throw guys out. He makes you believe in your stuff the way he talks to you on the mound.
"His evolution as a hitter is just remarkable. The power that he has now compared to what he used to is maybe five times the amount. He used to be an average, line-drive-to-right type of guy. Now he's able to hurt you a lot of different ways at the plate."
Wainwright is of course biased, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. Posey is the favorite, but Molina has a case to be sure. Posey was the better hitter, but there's little doubt Molina is the better catcher. And there's another matter: Molina is not only a truly great defensive catcher, he's a durable one. He made 133 starts and played 1,161 1/3 innings behind the plate. Posey made 111 starts and played 973 innings at catcher.
It may ultimately be a matter of taste, since catcher defense remains one of the hardest things to measure in all of baseball. But for an all-around contribution to a winning team, it's tough to top Molina.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.