As you’ve no doubt heard, Paul Goldschmidt is a Cardinal now. That’s incredibly exciting, and even if you haven’t followed Goldschmidt’s career closely, you know the broad strokes. Powerful first baseman, spectacular hitter, walks a lot without striking out too much- he’s great. Without watching him in the regular season, however, you could be forgiven for not having a more detailed idea of *how* he’s a great hitter. Now’s as good of a time as any to fix that, though, so you have a good idea what to watch for when games start. I won’t pretend I can encapsulate Goldschmidt’s approach to hitting in a single article, so instead I’m going to focus one one specific area today- how he uses his swing to generate power.
Here’s a gif of Goldschmidt hitting a home run:
I went with one against a Cardinal just to ease into this one. That ball was hit a mile- 418 feet, to be precise. As a quick aside, all of these videos are from 2016 because for whatever reason, Baseball Savant only has 2016 and earlier videos up at the moment. Let’s look at Goldschmidt’s longest home run of 2016 next:
Look, yeah, that’s John Gant. I’m not picking Cardinals on purpose, it just worked out that way. Again, you get the idea. The ball’s out, and it wasn’t close to not being out. Let’s get one non-Cardinal one in at least- and hey, this one’s against a pitcher who happens to have the same last name as me:
Hey, 84 pitches of shutout baseball before that. Good work, Clemens!
Do you see a common thread in these dingers? All of them are absolutely crushed, and all of them are on pitches up in the zone. If you’ve read much of the discussion around baseball’s recent home run surge, you’re probably tired of hearing about the uppercut swing that players are increasingly adopting. Swing-changers across baseball realized that you could take a Ted Williams-inspired swing to put low pitches into the air, and power ensued. Also, the ball was juiced, so there’s that- but uppercut swings no doubt played a large part as well. Want a refresher of what an uppercut swing looks like, as well as a welcome winter pick-me-up? Here’s website favorite and influential internet personality Randal Grichuk golfing a ball into the bleachers for a grand slam:
That swing is how you generate power on a low pitch- you get your hands low enough that you generate an upward angle of attack to the ball and try to strike it on a trajectory that mirrors its sink. By comparison, while Goldschmidt can still hit for power on low pitches, he’s not doing it by uppercutting the ball:
Instead, he’s swinging on a more or less flat path, and the home run comes from the power he naturally generates rather than getting the ball up in the air as much as possible.
You’ve seen the visual evidence, but do the numbers agree with my point as much as some cherry-picked home run gifs? Well, surprisingly enough they do! See, from 2016 to 2018, Goldschmidt is ninth out of all qualified hitters in wOBA, a rate statistic that gives one all-in number for batting results, at .391. For comparison, league leader Mike Trout clocks in at .433. Like your numbers more traditional? He’s third in OBP, 16th in slugging, and 12th in home runs. Great overall hitter- one of the top ten in baseball, even. On high pitches, though, Goldschmidt takes it to another level. Over that same time span, he is third in wOBA on pitches in the upper third of the strike zone, clocking in at a Troutian .433. On-base percentage is a confusing number for pitches that were in the strike zone so I’m skipping it, but Goldschmidt is also third in slugging and fourth in home runs up in the zone.
None of this is surprising after seeing his swing- a level, line-drive-oriented thing of beauty that sees Goldschmidt start high and stay balanced throughout. It’s a swing that has historically led to a lot of line drives and a lot of ground balls, though he managed to turn a few grounders into line drives last year while posting the highest average launch angle of his career. Launch angle is a neat way to think about how much you’re swinging up- the higher the incline, the more you’re meeting the ball from underneath. Let’s not get carried away, though- the highest launch angle Goldschmidt has ever posted for a full year is 15.7 degrees in 2018. The lowest Grichuk has ever reached is 15.9. Matt Carpenter, noted uppercut swinger, has never had a season with less than a 16.9 degree launch angle, and he topped out at 21.4 in 2017. Even as he’s started putting the ball in the air more, Goldschmidt has stayed reasonably flat in his swing, producing hard-hit balls around the diamond without sacrificing his tremendous power in the upper part of the strike zone.
What does this mean for Goldschmidt’s 2019? Well, I’m not honestly convinced it means a lot. Teams just don’t vary much in terms of how often they throw up in the zone. Between 2016 and 2018 and excluding the outlier Red Sox and Diamondbacks, the difference between the 2nd-highest and 2nd-lowest percentage of pitches thrown in that zone was a measly 2.4%. In other words, most teams behave about the same when it comes to throwing to the upper third of the strike zone. It’s not like you can really pitch to Goldschmidt’s cold spots, either- he’s still in the top 20 in baseball (17th) in wOBA on pitches thrown everywhere EXCEPT the upper third of the strike zone, clocking in at a healthy .385. Goldschmidt, in other words, can beat you anywhere you throw the ball, even if he slugs merely .496 on pitches outside his favored zone, as compared to .718 when he gets the ball where he wants it.
As far as I can tell, Goldschmidt is a pretty complete hitter. Still, though, his swing is tailored for maximum damage high in the zone. In a league that has gone from throwing 11.1% of all pitches high in the zone in 2015 to throwing 12.3% there last year, a swing that beats the high pitch is where you want to be right now. Obviously it helps to be an elite hitter in the rest of the strike zone too- but you already knew Paul Goldschmidt was great. You just didn’t know where the greatness was coming from. Next time you see a catcher set up high behind Goldschmidt, get excited. He has the pitcher right where he wants him.