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Paul's Golden Start

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Paul Goldschmidt is having one of the best seasons of his career. And he’s doing it in a completely unexpected way.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I don’t think I’m going too very far out on a limb to say that, so far, the Cardinals’ offense in 2020 has been very uninspiring. Through sixteen games, El Birdos have scored only 62 runs, or fewer than four per game on average. That is...quite bad. Now, to be fair, there are some extenuating circumstances in this strangest of seasons. Several players have spent time on the shelf due to Covid-related issues, and the complete lack of continuity in the season so far has to have been brutally difficult to deal with. I’m sure pitchers have their own troubles when it comes to dealing with time off, but if I’m picking who has it worse, I’m going with hitters every time. It’s impossible to maintain one’s timing if you’re not seeing live pitching for weeks at a time.

It is also a fact there are some brutally low BABIPs dragging things down. Tyler O’Neill has seemingly made very encouraging progress with his plate approach, but his line is being ruined by a BABIP that is below .150, which looks — and feels — like a typo, but I assure you is not. Dylan Carlson’s career has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, and his .160 BABIP isn’t helping. These things happen in small samples, of course, but it’s tough to remember that when you’re looking at multiple guys in the lineup with batting averages that look like answers to the question, what did a bottle of Sprite cost in 1997?

There is, however, one hitter who has not had any troubles whatsoever this year. In fact, this one hitter is having one of the more impressive seasons of his career, even acknowledging how small a sample ‘this season’ constitutes.

I’m talking about Paul Goldschmidt, who in his second season with the Cardinals is not only doing what the Redbirds hoped he would when they acquired him prior to the 2019 season from Arizona, but is looking a little like mid-career Joey Votto right now. That may be a coincidence, borne of this season being all of sixteen games old (in fact, it probably is), but it could also be a great hitter making his own early 30s adjustment. Probably not, but it’s certainly intriguing to consider.

At the moment I am writing this, the Cardinals are beating up (a little), on the Cincinnati Reds. Some things have happened, a rookie sent the first of many homers over the right field fence, and the Cards are up 6-2. And the subject of my column, the straw that stirs the drink (for this offense, anyway), has come to bat four times. In those four plate appearances, he has one hit and one walk. The hit was a double, only his second of the year. That’s been the one real black mark for Goldy this season; his power, which was already down in 2019 compared to previous seasons, has not been seen pretty much at all in 2020. He has hit two homers, but two dingers in nearly 70 trips to the plate is not, by pretty much any definition, ‘slugger’ territory.

However, here’s the thing: despite that power being sorely lacking, Paul Goldschmidt is putting together a phenomenal campaign so far. His overall line for the season is .346/.493/.500, which translates to a wRC+ of 181. In other words, in spite of an isolated slugging percentage more befitting a mediocre-hitting second baseman (Kolten Wong’s career ISO is .127, within shouting distance of Goldy’s .154 this year), than a slugging first base type, Paul Goldschmidt has been one of the best hitters in baseball in 2020. So how has he done it?

Well, first off, Goldy has just sort of stopped swinging. No, seriously. He has really, really cut down on how much he’s swinging this year.

Early in the 2019 season, even before we reached the Memorial Day one-third analysis point, I wrote about Goldschmidt’s apparently eroding plate discipline. I would encourage you to briefly go through that column and look at the plate discipline numbers I posted there, because they make for an extremely interesting contrast to what Goldy is doing so far in 2020.

Paul Goldschmidt’s walk rate currently sits at 22.4%, against a strikeout rate of just 14.9%. That is absolutely incredible, and not only a career-best ratio by a healthy margin (obviously, we’re looking at a very small slice of a season compared to full years in the past, but ~70 PAs also isn’t exactly nothing), but a complete 180 from the direction he was trending at the time I penned that mid-May column in his first season with the Redbirds. At that time, his walk rate was just over 10%, while he was striking out in nearly 27% of his at-bats. That doesn’t even look like the same hitter we’re seeing this year.

Here are the nuts and bolts of how Goldy’s plate discipline has turned around so startlingly this year:

  • His swing percentage at pitches out of the zone has plummeted, from a career high 28.1% in 2019 to just 23.4% this year. That 23.4% mark is pretty well in line with where he had been for most of his career prior to last season, and still not as low as a couple of his very best seasons. Still, that’s almost a 17% drop in o-swing% rate from 2019 to this year.
  • Even more dramatic, Goldschmidt’s z-swing% (that is, swings at pitches in the zone), has fallen from 65.7% in 2019 to just 54.8% this year. That 2019 mark was the highest of his career by five percentage points; this year’s number would be the lowest of his career, even lower than his 2014 and ‘15 campaigns, when he was in the mid-50s percentage wise for swinging at strikes. O-swing% is much easier to classify as a negative than z-swing% is to classify as either a positive or negative, so I’m not saying this drop is automatically a good thing. But, how do you get to a 1.5:1 walk to strikeout ratio and a 22%+ walk rate? You let a lot of pitches go by, both strikes and balls.
  • Over at Baseball-Savant, Goldy’s chase rate has fallen from 28.4% in 2019 to just 19.8% this year. That would again be the lowest of any season they have tracked for Goldschmidt, narrowly edging out his remarkable 2015 season. Chase rate is a little different from plain o-swing%, and while I don’t understand the methodology perfectly, it is geared to be a pretty clear negative. Swinging at balls isn’t always bad; chasing pitches almost always is.
  • The FanGraphs and Savant data both have Goldschmidt’s overall swing rate at a career-low 37.3%, a full two percentage points lower than his previous career low (again, 2015), and over nine percentage points lower than his 2019 swing rate (46.5%). That is an enormous change. He’s gone from swinging nearly half the time to just over a third of the time from last season to this year.
  • The biggest change of all, though, is actually one that Goldschmidt doesn’t really control. In 2019, 49% of the pitches he saw were strikes. In 2020, that number is just 44.4%. The Savant numbers see him going from 47.5% in the zone to just 43% this year; the discrepancy, I believe, is that Savant tracks pitch locations, while the BIS data at FanGraphs uses called balls and strikes. If that’s incorrect, someone let me know, but I think that’s the difference there. Regardless, the change is roughly the same in both cases.

So here’s what we have: a slugger seeing far fewer strikes, and simply refusing to swing to get himself out. Now, it’s impossible to say why Goldy has seen such a decrease in the number of strikes he’s been thrown this year; it’s tempting to say pitchers are being more careful with him, but it’s just as likely that in this sampling we have a little bit of rust on the part of some pitchers and a little bit of randomness to go along with it. I’m not combing through other hitters’ data sets to see if they’re seeing fewer strikes as well, but anecdotally it feels like the pitching has been a little sloppy this year, partially because we’re just seeing more pitchers who probably wouldn’t be on a major league roster if everything was normal.

The point, though, isn’t whether or not the decrease in strikes means anything. The point is that Paul Goldschmidt has, in fact, seen fewer strikes this season than in previous years. And his response has been exactly what one would hope: he just isn’t swinging.

To be fair, it’s not all positives for Goldy. His quality of contact numbers are not particularly good, in that he’s not really hitting the ball especially hard this season, nor elevating for a lot of power. His line drive percentage is extremely high, but his barrel% is low. In other words, he hasn’t really killed the ball this year, but he’s put solid wood on a bunch of pitches and collected a ton of hits. That’s why we see a .405 BABIP, crazy high even for Goldschmidt, but just that .154 ISO. Even in small sample land, though, there’s a point where you have to draw the line, and worrying overmuch about the batted ball profile of just about 40 batted ball events is where I’m going to do so. That’s about 9% of a full season’s batted balls, and there is always a little more randomness baked in to contact events as opposed to non-contact outcomes. So it’s worth keeping an eye on, but I don’t think it’s worth being really worried about just yet. (Also, those timing struggles I mentioned earlier could play into weaker contact, even if a guy is showing a great batting eye, I suspect.)

What is really interesting to consider here is whether this is all small-sample nonsense, or if any of this might represent a deliberate change to Goldschmidt’s approach and/or profile. I’ve heard some things here and there that Goldschmidt was very unhappy with the season he had last year, particularly his strikeouts, and Jeff Albert has long been known as a hitting coach focused on helping hitters improve their contact rates, hopefully without losing power in the process. I think it’s possible we may be seeing a deliberate switch in Goldschmidt’s approach here in 2020, and it is dovetailing perfectly with a marked decrease in the number of strikes he’s seeing. If pitchers were working in the zone more, this wouldn’t be quite so notable, but they aren’t, and so it is.

Paul Goldschmidt will turn 33 years old this September. He’s already had a great career, albeit one that will almost certainly not get him much Hall of Fame consideration. It looked last year like he might be approaching a career crossroads, where his physical skills had deteriorated enough to either force a change in approach or simply dictate a lesser level of production going forward. In other words, it looked like the Cardinals may very well have traded for the decline years of a previously great player. This year, though, it looks like maybe Goldy decided to go with that change in approach rather than just accept being a lesser player. We may not get enough of a look here in 2020 to be sure if this new version of Paul Goldschmidt is real or not. But if it is, suddenly his mid 30s look a whole lot different than we may have thought. So, you know. Fingers crossed.