Imagine a player who will turn 32 before the year is over. This player has had four straight seasons with a declining walk rate with the fifth season being in line to continue that trend. This player has had an escalating strikeout rate for three straight seasons, with the fourth season being in line to continue that trend. You can read a headline. I’m talking about Paul Goldschmidt. I’m worried about him.
To be more specific, I am not necessarily worried about him this year. I am worried about him this year, but only as much as I’m worried about any player the Cards are relying on who has a slow start. But I’m really worried about the next five years. The Cardinals locked up Goldschmidt to a five year deal and... I would really like them to not regret it before the deal even starts, which is more possible than you think.
How, you ask? Well, even though Goldschmidt has been a 5 WAR player the last three years, his K and BB rates have been trending the wrong way, he’s 31, and ZiPS is naturally conservative in the first place. So his ZiPS projection at the start of the year was 3.9. Which, if he were to have that season, would be pretty disappointing before a 5 year deal even kicks in. And to make matters worse, his start to the year has lowered ZiPS expectations. His rest of the season projection is now 3 WAR, and adding that to 0.5 WAR he has already accumulated produces just 3.5 WAR.
Now, don’t worry, Goldschmidt could hit 5 homers in the next 10 days, and I’m guessing the current season is back to normal, if not better. So as I said, this year specifically, my worries are mostly tied to the fact that they will establish what we can expect for the next five years. If that doesn’t make sense, I’ll make it simple: if he were an impending free agent, I wouldn’t be worried about Paul Goldschmidt at all for 2019.
But 2019 is concerning, so far. If you watch a lot of Cardinals games, there’s no way you didn’t notice that the dude strikes out a ton. Now, he’s always been a guy who strikes out more than you’d think, but he hasn’t struck out this much. I went through Goldschmidt’s monthly K% and he has had stretches similar to this before. With the exception of last year, which I’ll get more into, any similar stretch where he struck out this much came with an elite walk rate. His walk rate is just a shade under 10% right now. So that’s why I’m concerned.
He’s not walking as much for a very simple reason: he’s swinging a lot. He has a 46.1% swing rate on the year, which is quite a bit higher than his career average (41.1%) and his next lowest (43.9% in 2012). He’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone (30.8%) and in the zone (66.9%) than he ever has before. And a strange thing is happening. He has made contact on a career high 73.1% of balls out of the zone and made contact on pitches in the zone at a career low (with the exception of his 48 games in his rookie year) with 78.4%. What the hell’s going on here?
More concerning is that he started swinging at more pitches out of the zone last year, and it jumped way up. He was a model of consistency from 2013 to 2018, with an O-swing% between 23 and 25.1%. Last year, it jumped to 28.8%, which matched his O-swing% his second year in the league. Also curious is that pitchers are throwing a first pitch strike to Goldschmidt at an extremely high rate this year. Pitchers get to 0-1 on Goldschmidt 65.4% of the time this year, compared to his 57.7% career average. Obviously, the first pitch being a strike or ball is very important to the rest of the PA, and the reason for his increased Ks and decreased walks could be as simple as pitchers throwing more strike ones. Which... doesn’t really seem like a sustainable thing to me.
Anyway, last year he went through an arguably worse stretch with K/BB, so I would like to compare his numbers to last year’s slump. Last year, Goldschmidt walked nine times to six strikeouts in the first five games of the year. Starting on April 4, he struck out 31.6% of the time and walked 10.7% of the time. Worse than last year and in about 50 more plate appearances. Obviously, he recovered and had a great season, so take comfort in that.
Let’s compare his April 4-end of May plate discipline numbers to his numbers this year.
Pretty similar actually. He swung and miss at more pitches in last year’s stretch, and made way less contact on pitches out of the zone. For whatever it’s worth and it’s far too small a sample to give a reason as to why, but his BABIP last year was .300 during that stretch and it’s .286 now. It’s not inherently a good thing to make more contact on out of zone pitches. His ISO was similar - .194 to .205 now. His wRC+ was 93 last year compared to 104 today.
For the rest of the year last year, Goldschmidt had a 12.2 BB%, a 22.2% K rate, and a 170 wRC+. So if he could go ahead and duplicate that, that’d be great. He’s starting at a marginally better position than last year (at least so far - on May 30, maybe not). Anyway, I wish I could make a definitive conclusion towards Goldschmidt’s plate discipline, but we’ll have to wait and see.