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Paul Goldschmidt has Returned to Normal

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Under the radar, the Cardinals big acquisition is playing like a big acquisition again.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The coming weekend, particuarly what happens 800+ miles away from St. Louis in Colorado, will have a lot to say about the next phase of the 2019 Cardinals. Whatever happens, it’s undeniable that a lot has gone right for the Cardinals in the second half. With the exception of five games in California, a frustrating 19 inning loss in Arizona, a maddeningly quiet trade deadline, and some nitpicky performances by some individuals, they have very much looked the part of a playoff team since mid-July. It has translated to a 46-25 record in the second half, a 105 win pace. The national media has started to take notice. They’ve fixated on Kolten Wong, whose performance at the plate has finally made people realize how great he is afield. They couldn’t miss Jack Flaherty, who totes a Gibsonesque 0.97 ERA in the second half. The smaller components like the bullpen, the team defense, and the baserunning have drawn praise. While everyone was focused on all of that, they missed a major part of the second half resurgence. Paul Goldschmidt looks like Paul Goldschmidt again.

The irony about all of this is that he was supposed to be the superstar that recent Cardinal teams had lacked. He put a star-level face to the team. A big reason for that reverence was his unflinching consistency. Before the season in his community projection article, I referred to him as a baeball-mashing robot and used the following evidence:

In five of the last six seasons (2013-2018):

Goldschmidt’s batting average has landed between .290 and .302. The one outlier was .321 in 2015.

His on-base percentage has been between .389 and .411. The one outlier was .435, again in 2015.

His slugging percentage has been .533 to .570. The outlier was .489 in 2016.

Goldschmidt’s isolated slugging has landed between .241 and .265. The outlier was .192 in 2016.

He’s had between 665 and 710 plate appearances (outlier: 479 in 2014).

Other than the plate appearances, he’s going to fall well shy of all of those standards this season. That’s mostly because he got off to such a lethargic start to the season. America’s First Baseman was toting a .254/.343/.426 slash line when the All-Star break arrived, a performance more worthy of America’s Jonathan Villar Clone. Everyone had a diagnosis, a fact that Ben Clemens comically pointed to in his (always) excellent article about Goldschmidt a little over a month ago:

When a player declines like this, theories for what has changed abound. Goldschmidt had a slow start to 2018 as well, and back then, Jay Jaffe surmised that Goldschmidt’s difficulties stemmed from trouble dealing with velocity. This year, opinions were more varied. Maybe he had a patience problem, or a groundball problem. Maybe he got too streaky. Regardless of the cause, it seemed like time to worry.

The surge Ben talked about in that article has continued on well enough that we can reasonably surmise that Paul Goldschmidt is back. Of course, if we juste look at the slash lines, you’d probably think I’d lost my durned fool mind:

Paul Goldschmidt, AVG/OBP/SLG

Timeframe AVG OBP SLG
Timeframe AVG OBP SLG
2016-2018 0.295 0.401 0.528
1st Half 2019 0.254 0.343 0.426
2nd Half 2019 0.266 0.349 0.540

The power has clearly returned, but his batting average is still down and so is his on-base percentage. Thankfully for baseball analysis, we live in 2019 and not 2005, which means there’s a lot more evidence. Let’s peel back one more layer. Now we’ll peek at his line drive percentage, isolated slugging, plate discipline (BB and K%), and HR/FB%:

Paul Goldschmidt, Power, Plate Discipline, and Line Drives

Timeframe ISO LD% BB% K% HR/FB%
Timeframe ISO LD% BB% K% HR/FB%
2016-2018 0.233 22.90% 14.30% 22.80% 21.90%
1st Half 2019 0.172 19.70% 11.40% 25.70% 18.00%
2nd Half 2019 0.274 25.50% 11.70% 21.7%% 21.80%

Now we’re getting somewhere. His ISO is actually better than it was in his three previous seasons. He’s hitting significantly more line drives compared to even his 2016-2018 phase. His strikeout percentage has deflated back to his 2016-2018 rate even as league rates have increased, and his HR/FB% is right in line with 2016-2018. The mild trouble area is the walk percentage, which seems to be in a spiral. Other than the walks, some of that indicates that Paul Goldschmidt is Paul Goldschmidt again, but the significant increase in ISO and line drives hint that maybe he’s become something else altogether. We’ll go one more layer down, this time with Statcast data:

Goldschmidt, Statcast Data

Timeframe Barrel % GB/FB xwOBACON
Timeframe Barrel % GB/FB xwOBACON
2016-2018 11.47% 1.31 0.461
1st Half 2019 9.40% 1.11 0.429
2nd Half 2019 13.54% 0.83 0.455

That’s the good stuff. The barrel percentage stat you see is the percentage of barrels he has on balls in play. His wOBA hasn’t really followed suit, which leads to the lesser slash line, which is why nobody has noticed his surge. However, if we look at xwOBA- in this case, specifically on contact- he’s producing like he did during his three years before coming to St. Louis. More encouraging, he’s barreling up more pitches now than he did even in that phase. The fun part is that massive discrepancy in his groundball-to-flyball rate. That’s a new trick, and it verifies what Ben pointed out last month. He’s lifting the ball a lot more these days (Ben also offers a lot more insights; you really should read his article, but I digress).

Not only is Goldschmidt producing like the player the Cardinals acquired, but he seems to be evolving into something else altogether. With the most meaningful games of the Cardinals season coming up over the next week, it couldn’t be a better time to have their superstar playing like one. Feel free to wax poetic about Flaherty, Wong, and the others. Just don’t forget Paul Goldschmidt.