The Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt nearly two years ago with the hope that he would be a highly productive lineup cornerstone. His first season didn’t exactly follow script. Goldschmidt reached or approached career lows in wRC+, BB%, on-base percentage, batting average, and fWAR in 2019, even if his second half looked better. He has seemingly returned to form in his second season in St. Louis. Through Wednesday’s games, Goldschmidt’s 166 wRC+ is tied for 8th in baseball. It would be easy to asssume that all is normal in Paul Goldschmidt’s world, that he has triumphantly returned to his pre-2019 performance. That assumption would be incorrect.
Note: this was all compiled and written before Goldschmidt’s two games yesterday, which included a homerun.
Let’s use a simple table to look at how Goldschmidt is producing this season compared to last year.
Paul Goldschmidt, 2019 v. 2020
A few numbers jump out immediately. His OBP has skyrocketed. His slugging percentage has improved despite a decrease in his isolated slugging. That’s likely a function of the enormous jump in BABIP. We can explain the OBP spike thanks to his walk and strikeout percentages. Obviously it’s a small sample (permanent statement for 2020), but he has added a whopping 7.8% to his walk percentage while shedding more than 10% from his strikeout percentage. His BB/K rate is third best in baseball this season. That’s especially significant because he had been declining for a few years in those categories.
The more you look at those two categories side by side, it’s hard to believe they’re the same hitter. We can deduce that the enhanced production is coming from a massive increase in walks and an increase in hits on balls in play.
Now let’s take a look at his batted ball profile and Statcast data:
Goldschmidt: Batted Ball and Statcast, 2019 v. 2020
We’ve unearthed more oddities. Given his improved numbers, you’d expect some progress on the Statcast data. That’s not what’s happening. His average exit velocity is down 1.8 mph. That’s not automatically a bad thing- using average exit velocity is dubious because it strips out a lot of important context. However, we can add in some of the other context. His hard hit percentage is down and his barrel percentage is down.
He has converted 4.1% of his groundballs and 0.7% of his flyballs from last year into line drives. That’s good. He has also decreased his number of infield flyballs- lazy popups that become automatic outs. It’s probably only a few popups in the big picture, but it still accounts for 2 or 3 times he did something else besides hitting into an automatic out in a short season.
He’s going the other way more this season, which isn’t really a good or bad thing necessarily. However, it does probably help explain why his ISO is down. Pulled flyballs are much more productive. There’s one last number in there we need to address. Somehow, Paul Goldschmidt has increased his rate of infield hits. It’s been worth one or two infield hits so far.
If you’re keeping score at home, we can account for 4 or 5 at-bats alone that would’ve been pop-ups or infield outs instead of a few infield hits and... well, we don’t know what else happened on those 2 or 3 non-pop-ups but even one measly single would’ve been an improvement. We also know that his enhanced walk rate amounts to a sizable 11 additional walks over what his 2019 rate would’ve produced. That’s 14 to 16 additional times he reached base.
Interestingly enough, this all dovetails with a change in approach at the plate:
Goldschmidt Plate Approach, 2019 v. 2020
|Zone Swing %||66.6||59.3|
|Zone Contact %||77.7||80.5|
|Chase Contact %||65||69|
|1st Pitch Swg %||30.6||19.9|
He has been much more selective this season, particularly on first pitches. He’s chasing less, but making contact more when he does chase. His whiff percentage is down and his contact percentage on pitches in the zone is up. Combine this info with the increase in line drives, the decrease in strikeouts, and the spike in walks and he has reinvented himself, at least in our tiny sample.
A few months ago, I highlighted a few new tools used to evaluate hitters. One of those tools was Jeff Zimmerman’s AHHD, or “Average Hard Hit Difference.” The idea is to subtract a hitter’s average launch angle on his non-hard hits (less than 98 mph exit velocity) from his hard hits (98+ EV). Last year, Goldschmidt’s AHHD was 2.09. This year, it’s all the way up to 5.7. His lift has increased on his best contact, but only a little bit. His HHLA (hard hit launch angle) is up from 16.7 to 17.4 this season. His non-98+ mph contact is now much lower. Last season, it was 14.7 degrees and it’s down to 11.8 this year. More of his weaker contact has turned into flares instead of popups.
That’s significant because flares have one of the highest expected batting average of any batted ball type. Since 2019, the the batting average on flares is .656, second only to barrels in batting average. Of course, it’s also much lower than both barrels and solid contact in wOBA, but that’s irrelevant here because we’re trying to explain why Paul Goldschmidt has been highly productive despite less loud contact. Instead of an extra base hit, a flare will lead to more singles. Goldschmidt’s flare percentage is up 2% from last year. Again, with the small sample, that’s probably one or two extra flares. It’s not a lot, but Goldschmidt has spackled together a bunch of small volumes that yield better results into a bunch of better results.
If you’re looking for any one aspect that explains Paul Goldschmidt’s funky 2020 numbers, you won’t find it. Instead, it’s a rich tapestry of changes- more patience, more contact but not an increase in weak contact, fewer popups, more flares, and a little more loft on his hardest hit balls. He took the change in his couch cushions and turned it into a satisfying, drunk late night Baconator.
This isn’t the player the Cardinals traded for in December 2018, but he sure produces the same way.