Over the offseason, the Cardinals finally, finally did what so many fans (many of us here included), had been clamouring for the club to do for the past several years: they went out and got themselves a big bat. Marcell Ozuna hadn’t brought the thunder to the lineup, Matt Carpenter has been setting the table for years but can’t drive himself in, and the rest of the team was composed of very good but entirely complementary players. What the club needed, the line of reasoning went, was an offensive centerpiece player to transform the lineup and serve as the engine of run production for the whole enterprise.
Enter Paul Goldschmidt, the former Arizona Diamondback first baseman who had established himself as one of the game’s true superstar hitters. From 2013 to 2018, Goldschmidt only once posted a wRC+ below 140, and was a five plus win per year force season after season. Goldy was going to be that guy, the offensive driver that would push the Cardinal lineup to the next level, and bring postseason baseball back to St. Louis.
The good news is that the Cardinal offense in 2019 has been pretty awesome; the Cards’ non-pitcher wRC+ of 113 is seventh-best in baseball, and their position players have contributed a total of 8.0 wins above replacement, tied with the Cubs for fourth-best in the game. However, the chief driver of that offensive success (and overall WAR production), has not, in fact, been the club’s new centerpiece player. The Redbirds are being led by a Paul, just not the Paul everyone expected. Paul DeJong has turned in a monster campaign so far, with a 161 wRC+ and 2.7 WAR to date season that put him pretty firmly in the National League MVP race. Of course, Cody Bellinger’s season is currently sucking up all the air in the room, but Pauly D deserves to at least be included in that discussion when it comes up.
The bad news is that Paul Goldschmidt isn’t only not the chief driver of the Cardinal offense this year because DeJong has shot off into the stratosphere. Goldy is also not the big driving force the Cards had hoped because, frankly, he’s been good but not great, and certainly nowhere near the kind of transformative force the club acquired him to be. And even Goldschmidt’s good but not otherworldly current batting line is being propped up still by a home run binge early in the season. Now, that’s not to say home run binges aren’t valuable; only that Goldy’s overall performance has been decidedly disappointing outside of a couple crazy Miller Park home run derby days.
So let’s talk about what is and isn’t working for Goldschmidt right now. Unfortunately, we can’t look at Statcast data and immediately feel better that Goldy is just getting unlucky this season. His barrel percentage is down this year, from 13.3% and 13.6% in 2017 and ‘18 respectively to 11.9% in 2019. Now, that’s still a pretty good barrel rate, but it’s down all the same. His hard-hit percentage (using Statcast methodology, that is), has dropped from 43.8% in 2018 to 38.5% this year. Goldy’s expected slugging percentage of .487 is slightly higher than his actual slugging percentage of .479, so maybe he “should” have garnered an extra double or two over the course of the season so far. Unfortunately, his expected batting average of .253 shows his actual batting average of .270 probably has a bit of luck built in, so we can probably cancel out the power gain.
Overall, Goldschmidt’s weighted on base average this season is .350. His expected wOBA is .353. Essentially, what Paul Goldschmidt’s batting line says he is is pretty much in line with how he’s performed.
What the Statcast data tells us, though, is mostly contact stuff. Goldschmidt’s quality of contact has been worse this year than in the past, and that’s bad. But it’s not exactly diagnostic. The good news here is that I don’t think it’s really all that difficult to figure out what’s actually wrong with Paul Goldschmidt in 2019.
Paul Goldschmidt is swinging too much. Full stop. Literally, that’s it.
We can see the issue pretty clearly right off the bat in Goldy’s walk and strikeout percentages, but those only tell part of the story. Goldschmidt in 2019 is walking just 10.4% of the time, which is not a bad rate, by any means, but is not reflective of the kind of hitter he was at his best. Here are Goldy’s walk rates since 2013: 13.9%, 13.4%, 17.0%, 15.6%, 14.1%, 13.0%, 10.4%. That 17% number came from Goldschmidt’s incredible 2015 campaign, when he posted a seven win season and a 163 wRC+.
It’s also worth noting that Goldschmidt’s strikeout rate has gotten substantially worse. From the time he became a full-time player in 2012 through 2017, Goldy’s K rate was between 20 and 23% every season. In 2018 that number jumped up to 25.1%. So far in 2019 his strikeout rate has jumped again, from 25.1% to 26.8%. It is simplistic and even reductive to say when a hitter is walking less and striking out more he’s going to be worse, but it’s also nearly always true.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Raw walk and strikeout totals aren’t enough to tell us what’s going on. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good news for you in the more granular plate discipline numbers either.
This season, Goldschmidt’s out of zone swing percentage (O-Swing%), is at 30.1%. Now that number alone probably is of limited use; for context, a true hacker like Javy Baez sits in the ~45% range on O-Swing%, while peak Matt Carpenter was actually below 20% a couple years. Josh Donaldson was always in the 24-25% range. What I’m saying is that you can have a wide range of numbers here and still see success, though Baez is pretty clearly an outlier in a bunch of ways.
However, that 30.1% does have meaning when we compare it to Goldschmidt’s own history. In 2018, Goldy’s O-Swing% was 28.8%, which is obviously lower, but not a ton. However, if we go back even just one more season to 2017, that number drops to 24.4%, and that’s where we see a different sort of hitter. In Goldschmidt’s 2015 season his O-Swing% was just 22.4%, and it was below 25% every year from 2014-’17.
If we turn to O-Swing’s companion, Z-Swing% (that is, swing percentage inside the zone), we find that Goldschmidt is swinging at 66.7%, or exactly two-thirds, of the pitches he sees inside the strike zone this year. Now, Z-Swing% is a little less cut and dried that O-Swing%; it’s almost always a positive to swing at fewer balls out of the strike zone. Swinging inside the zone, though, isn’t as clearly a positive or negative. But again, we can look at where Goldschmidt has been in the past, and try to parse out what that means for his current approach.
Perhaps not shockingly, we find that 66.7% number to be substantially higher than Goldy’s historic norm. It’s a jump of over five percentage points from 2018’s 62.4%, which was more or less in line with how Goldschmidt approached the strike zone during his best seasons. He had one season, 2014, when his Z-Swing% fell below 60% all the way to 58.6%, but that was much more patient than he was most years. In general, Goldschmidt swung at 60-62% of the strikes he saw for basically his whole career up until this season. This sudden jump in aggression is something new.
What’s interesting is that his swing rates in and outside the zone have come with contact rates going in opposite directions. Goldschmidt’s Z-Contact% this season has fallen from 82.2% in 2018, which was roughly in line with the rest of his career numbers, to just 76.6%. That’s a rather large dip in contact rate on strikes, particularly when considering we’re talking about a jump in swing rate on those pitches. Paul Goldschmidt is swinging significantly more often at strikes, but missing those strikes quite a bit more as well. Not a great combination.
Somewhat oddly, Goldy’s O-Contact% has actually risen. In 2018, his contact rate on pitches out of the zone was 66.7%, which was, again, not much different from his typical season. He was between 66% and 69% almost every year from 2012 to 2018. This season, however, Goldschmidt is making contact on 73.3% of his swings outside the zone. So we have a player swinging at more strikes but missing them more often, and swinging at more balls but making contact more often. It’s an odd confluence of changes, and not a good one, I don’t believe.
Overall, Goldschmidt in 2019 is swinging at 45.3% of the pitches he sees. That is up three percentage points from his 2018 rate of 42.3%, but that number was also a big jump from his best years. From 2014-2016, Goldy swung at 39.2%, 39.4%, and 39.1% of the pitches he saw. That number jumped to almost 41% in 2017, took a smaller step up last season, and another big jump this year. Clearly, Paul Goldschmidt is becoming less patient, and less selective, as time goes by.
It’s worth noting that the overall percentage of pitches Goldy is seeing in the zone has not appreciably changed. His zone percentage this year is 41.7%, which is up a bit from the 40.4% he saw in 2018, but it’s also slightly down from where Goldschmidt was in his best years. His zone% was between 42% and 44% every season from 2014 to 2017, so 41.7% is not really much off that sort of pace. In other words, it doesn’t appear pitchers have significantly changed the amount of strikes they’re throwing to Goldschmidt; it’s his reaction to those pitches that is different now.
I will say this: Goldschmidt has seen a huge uptick in the number of first-pitch strikes he’s seen this season, from 59.1% in 2018 to 66.1%. He sat mostly in the mid-50% range for the 2013 to 2016 era, then saw that number climb to around 59% each of the past two seasons. That seems to be in line with general pitching trends, as pitchers are getting better all the time at aggressively attacking the zone early in the count. This huge jump Goldschmidt has seen in 2019, though, seems really unusual, maybe even fluky. It’s possible, though, that a fluky occurrence, i.e. Goldschmidt seeing an unusual number of first-pitch strikes thrown against him, has led to a not-fluky issue, i.e. Goldschmidt expanding his zone and struggling to control counts because he’s been behind so often.
So what does this all mean? Well, unfortunately, that’s a little tough to pin down. The scary thing is that this is a similar sort of skill degradation we saw in one of the players Goldschmidt is most often compared to: Albert Pujols. The early signs of decline we saw in Pujols’s profile did not come in his on-contact results, but rather his ability to control the strike zone. The walk rate fell precipitously, and Pujols went from a 14-16% walk rate guy from 2005-’10 to 9.4% in 2011, his final season with the Cardinals, and then to sub-8% walk rates nearly every season with the Angels. If that’s the sort of decline we’re seeing with Goldschmidt, then suddenly the next five years look much, much scarier than they did six months ago.
On the other hand, it’s also possible this is a thing that is actually correctable. Players gradually alter their approaches over time, but Goldschmidt in 2019 doesn’t look like a gradual slide toward a more aggressive hitter. This looks like a sudden crisis of patience at the plate, potentially brought on by an abnormally high number of pitcher’s counts Goldy has been facing this season. And I think the lesser contact we’ve seen from Goldschmidt is related to, or perhaps even entirely a product of, these unfavourable plate discipline numbers. Goldy is swinging entirely too often, and not picking the pitches he actually wants to hit as well as he has in the past. Now, it’s possible that’s related to a general decline in his skills, either slower reaction times or a loss of bat speed, and he is essentially cheating in order to catch up to pitches he used to wait on, leading to worse outcomes in strike zone judgment. It’s also entirely possible we’re just seeing bad habits, mechanical issues, and maybe some internally applied pressure short-circuiting an historically great hitter’s approach at the plate right now.
And, of course, we can always take solace in the fact that even with all these struggles and these discouraging numbers, Paul Goldschmidt is still a very good hitter. He just hasn’t been a great hitter so far, the kind that the Cardinals went out and traded for. Let’s hope Jeff Albert and Mark Budaska can help Goldy rediscover his patience and get him back to where we were hoping he would be soon. Goldschmidt needs to be more patient. Cardinal fans may not be in that same boat.