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Can Paul Goldschmidt Bounce Back?

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MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt last offseason, it seemed as if they had finally acquired a middle-of-the-order force that could anchor the offense and provide accolade-worthy defense at first base. Nonetheless, things did not go exactly according to plan in Goldschmidt’s first year with the team.

Goldschmidt added 2.9 WAR to the team, which is solid, but it is not nearly what the team was expecting. He had posted a WAR of 4.9, 5.3, and 5.2 in each of the last three seasons, respectively, so this was quite a drop from his usual production. It was hardly a bad season, but now the question is: Will Goldschmidt revert back to his 5-WAR production levels or did this season demonstrate that age has begun to catch up with the 32 year old?

The first statistic to examine is BABIP. The right-handed-hitting Goldschmidt posted a .303 BABIP this season, which definitely showed some regression. Over the span of his nine years in Majors, Goldschimdt has averaged a BABIP of .348 each season. The last time that he posted a BABIP below .340 was back in 2011 (his debut season), when he put up a .323 mark in 48 games for the Diamondbacks. Clearly his .303 BABIP in 2019 appears to be an outlier and is likely due to a sizable amount of bad luck at the plate.

The bad luck is especially noticeable when considering Goldschmidt’s quality of contact. Goldschmidt actually improved his hard-contact and medium-contact rates this season, while his soft contact rate fell by more than two percent. Even though his exit velocity fell from 90.8 mph to 90.1 mph, that is not enough to justify such a precipitous drop in his BABIP. Even with this slight drop, Goldschmidt still finished in the 70th percentile in exit velocity.

Additionally, Goldschmidt’s eye at the plate appears to have declined slightly, but not enough to validate such an offensive decline. His O-Swing percentage rose by more than 2.5 percent, but his Z-Swing percentage also rose by more than five percent, so this could demonstrate a change in approach or a batter’s eye that is beginning to decline. Another potentially ominous sign is that his swinging-strike rate rose by a percent, tying a career high of 11.1 percent (2011). Despite this, however, Goldschmidt managed to strike out less than he did last season as he dropped his strikeout percentage by nearly a full percentage point. Nevertheless, this was accompanied by an even greater drop in his walk rate (-1.6%).

Another area where Goldschmidt has declined in the past few years is exit velocity. His average exit velocity peaked in 2015 at 92 mph and it has begun declining since then. In 2016, it dropped to 91 mph; in 2017, it went back up to 91.4 but then fell to 90.8 mph in 2018 and 90.1 mph this year. Considering that Goldschmidt will be 33 years old next season, it seems unlikely that he will reverse this trend.

This does not mean that bad seasons should be the new expectation for Goldschmidt. A 2.9 WAR season in decidedly above average and is not bad by any means. In fact, it is a reasonable expectation for Goldschmidt’s numbers to improve next season. He declined slightly, but not nearly enough to justify a 2.3 WAR decrease. He suffered from a significant amount of bad batted-ball luck, but this should change next season based on his quality of contact. It should not be too much of a surprise to see Goldschmidt post at least one more 3.5-4 WAR season, despite his apparent decline.

Goldschmidt’s season numbers are also dragged down by his disappointing first half of the season. This can be demonstrated by the difference in his OPS between the two halves. Before the All-Star break, Goldschmidt had a .769 OPS. After the break, he heated up, posting an .887 OPS through the end of the regular season. Goldschmidt has historically been a bit of a slow starter — perhaps he just waited a little longer to turn it on this season.

Goldschmidt remains a very good hitter and defensive first baseman, as he is in the running to take home his fourth Gold Glove. First base is not a premier defensive position, but he plays it well enough to add a good amount of value on the defensive side of the game. In addition, Goldschmidt should post better offensive numbers next season, even if he continues to decline. Luck likely hurt his value more than his slightly declining skills did and this could make him a candidate for some positive regression next season, even though he will be 33 years old.