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Rediscovering the golden touch

Lauded for his consistency, what’s up with the star first baseman’s volatility in 2019?

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

So here we are: officially into the back half of the 2019 regular season. With 82 down and 80 games to go, the 2019 Cardinals find themselves treading in mediocrity at 41-41, the National League’s coldest team since May 1 with playoff odds that have taken a 47% nosedive over the past two months.

You would be hard pressed to find many Cardinals fans pleased with the way this season has unfolded thus far. In no small part, we can look towards the incongruity between expectations and actual on-field performance for a lineup that currently ranks fourth worst in the NL by runs scored per game and wRC+ (excluding pitchers). I should preface the content of the article herein with the disclaimer that no single player deserves the entirety of fans’ finger pointing. Case in point: Ben Godar explained last week that the Cardinals have received underwhelming production across the board.

That isn’t to say that analyzing individual players–much like A.E. Schafer’s examination of Matt Carpenter last week–is a fruitless exercise. There are still questions to be asked when relative to what we anticipated, the most prominent acquisition in recent franchise history has yielded more fool’s gold than superstar-caliber play. Ha. Fool’s gold. Cue the air horns because we’ve got ourselves maybe undoubtedly the best zinger any of us will ever encounter.

In Paul Goldschmidt the Cardinals were expecting about as consistently elite performance as you’ll find. Since 2013, his lowest WAR output in a single year is 4.3 wins–and even that was when he only suited up for 109 games in 2014. He is the only Cardinal to play in all 82 games, but think of an offensive stat and there is a very high chance 2019 Goldschmidt is at a personal nadir in that category. He and Carpenter were projected to post 8 WAR between them. The observed total 82 games in? Exactly 1. Never mind past career numbers or projections for them as individuals; the Cardinals aren’t going to reach the playoffs if their two best hitters are both running a wRC+ below 100, the overall league average mark, as is the case right now.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll hone in on Goldschmidt given the recent digital ink that has already been spilled at VEB regarding Carpenter. Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that the Goldschmidt of old hasn’t disappeared entirely in St. Louis. Consider the rollercoaster ride that is his wRC+ in the timeframes outlined below:

  • 3/28-4/27: 150
  • 4/28-5/8: -25
  • 5/9-6/1: 158
  • 6/2-6/30: 46

That’s night-and-day fluctuation between a player who is perennially one of the best hitters in all of baseball and a player who some pitchers could out-slug. To try and better explain this, we’ll consolidate those four time periods and place them into one of two buckets: hot streaks or cold streaks. Let’s start by taking a look at Goldschmidt’s batted ball profile, namely, what types of batted balls (grounder, flyball, line drive) he puts into play more frequently and which parts of the field he uses the most. I included his numbers in the hot and cold streak buckets, calculated the differences between the two, and then on the far right of the table added a column with Goldschmidt’s career markers in that metric to provide more context.

Paul Goldschmidt: Batted Ball Data Overview

Stat Hot Streaks Cold Streaks Difference Career
Stat Hot Streaks Cold Streaks Difference Career
GB% 42.4% 44.7% 2.3% 43.2%
FB% 34.4% 40.4% 6.0% 34.4%
LD% 23.2% 14.9% -8.3% 22.5%
Pull% 34.4% 31.9% -2.5% 36.9%
Cent% 43.2% 40.4% -2.8% 36.0%
Oppo% 22.4% 27.7% 5.3% 27.0%

The two key takeaways are 1) Goldschmidt is pulling the ball less in lieu of going the other way more often than usual amidst his slumps; 2) line drives are the holy grail of batted balls in terms of doing damage, and not surprisingly his dry spells correlate with a plummet in line drive rate. Additionally, though not listed on the table, Goldschmidt’s average exit velocity on batted balls this season is the lowest of his career per Statcast, as is his hard contact rate.

Goldschmidt’s plate discipline figures also offer insight into his streakiness–and possibly pitchers adapting accordingly.

Paul Goldschmidt: Plate Discipline Data Overview

Stat Hot Streaks Cold Streaks Difference Career
Stat Hot Streaks Cold Streaks Difference Career
K% 24.4% 27.2% 2.8% 22.7%
BB% 13.7% 8.2% -5.5% 13.7%
Swing% 43.7% 47.9% 4.3% 41.2%
O-Swing% 27.8% 33.3% 5.5% 25.7%
Z-Swing% 66.2% 69.3% 3.1% 62.0%
Zone% 41.3% 41.8% 0.5% 42.8%
Fastball% 53.0% 44.4% -8.6% 54.8%

A hitter could theoretically “get away with” poorer contact quality when bat does meet ball so long as they avoided strikeouts and drew a sizable amount of walks. Goldschmidt, however, has seen the polar opposite occur: more strikeouts and fewer walks. Despite the fact that his Zone%, the share of pitches in the strike zone, has remained largely constant throughout, Goldschmidt has been abnormally aggressive letting loose and swinging when he struggles. This could be over-extrapolating a small sample size, but opposing pitchers have shied away from the fastball when Goldschmidt is swinging more freely.

It’s not as though his poor play can be entirely chalked up to misfortune. His BABIP during hot (.378) and cold (.206) streaks do form a stark contrast that, on the surface, at least, might suggest that positive regression back towards the mean is coming for a player whose lifetime BABIP stands at .351. That line of thought, however, neglects that Goldschmidt is hitting the ball more softly and providing less non-contact offensive production (i.e. his BB/K ratio) in 2019. Needless to say, line drives–of which he is hitting less–naturally boost a hitter’s BABIP since they are more likely to sneak past infielders, drop in front of outfielders, etc. for hits. Plus, walking less–which he is doing–renders you more susceptible to the BABIP gods because walks don’t require any such “luck” to safely reach base.

Goldschmidt’s weighted on-base average (wOBA) on the year is .325, but my (more predictive) homemade metric utilizing exit velocity, launch angle, sprint speed, and park factor data would have “expected” a .336 wOBA, still worse than any single-season wOBA he’s ever posted.

From 2013 to 2018, Goldschmidt ranked in the 90th percentile of all qualified hitters in BB/K ratio; in 2019, he’s all the way down in the 52nd. Reverting to a more judicious pitch selection philosophy could help limit instances of chasing difficult-to-hit pitches–especially out of the strike zone–in addition to ensuring that swings do lead to quality contact more often. There is no denying Paul Goldschmidt’s immense talent, but there is also no denying the ineffectiveness of his current approach in the status quo.