Author’s Note: this was written before Tuesday night’s game. Stats are all from Tuesday morning.
Paul Goldschmidt has had a shaky start to the season. As of Tuesday afternoon (before that game-breaking HR in extras last night), Goldy had a .246/.289/.396 slash line with a .299 wOBA and a 92 wRC+. That makes him just slightly better than replacement level a little over a month into the season, with solid defense. Goldy was acquired at a steep price in prospects and extended for a hefty financial sum. The Cardinals are counting on him to be an elite producer now and for several more years.
While I’m not hearing a lot of concern among Cardinals fans about Goldy’s start, there are quiet whispers in chat forums and subtweets: “is Goldschmidt declining? Is age catching up to him? Is he Matt Carpenter all over again?”
Let’s go through a few stats that I find relevant to this conversation to determine what’s gone wrong with Goldschmidt in 2021 and if it’s going to last.
BB’s are way down, K’s are a little up.
The most noticeable part of Goldy’s current struggles is his walk rate. His walk totals are down. I mean WAY down. His current 5.6% rate (as of Tuesday afternoon) is half of what it was in his next lowest full season. He is currently 7.9 percentage points below his career average. That’s enough to rank Goldy, who has been one of the most consistent walkers in the league, in the bottom 20% of batters in free passes.
Why is it so low? The easy answer is that Goldy has seen an elevated percentage of pitches in the zone – 51.4%. He’s also swinging at a higher percentage of those pitches – 65.5%. His chase rate and whiff rates are also slightly higher than expected.
None of these percentages are that far off his norms. When you add a bunch of small changes together, though, the total can get pretty big. That’s what is happening with his walk rate.
Will this continue? There’s just no way it does. Even the most pessimistic computer models believe Goldschmidt will double his current rate for the rest of the season.
That said, Goldy needs to take more pitches. Even pitches in the zone. Last year his swing percentage was only 40.6%, well below his average rate. That was comparable to some of his best years in Arizona. It translated to an incredible 16% walk rate without a ton of lost power in a small sample size. I really like the version of Paul Goldschmidt that waits for his pitch rather than swinging at everything he finds in and around the zone.
His production against fastballs is inexplicably down.
That’s because his bat speed is getting slower as he ages right!? We’ve seen this before! We’re full-on Matt Carpenter here! Quick, freak out! Sign Albert Pujols!
Fear not. If Goldschmidt’s bat was that much slower than in previous years, it would show up in his Statcast data. It just isn’t. His average exit velocity is 92.9, the highest it has been in years. His max exit velocity is 111.6, right in line with the rest of his career. His xwOBACON – I know, it’s a mouthful of a stat: expected weighted on-base average on contact – is .441. That’s good and right in line with what he produced in ’19 and ’20. His barrel% is good enough. His sweet spot% is fine. His expected slugging (xSLUG) is a terrific .494.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that his bat speed looks fine and he’s just experiencing some small sample random variation with a pitch type he normally crushes. It happens. We’ve tracked this same phenomenon with a few other Cards batters early in the season the last two years. These pitch-type production stats matter but they can change very fast and are wildly volatile.
Against fastballs, Goldy has a poor-for-him .274/.345/.452 Statcast slash line (BA/wOBA/SLUG). If we turn those into expected stats, that line translates to a .296/.402/.598. That’s some fantastic expected production against fastballs that just isn’t happening in real life. It should be. But it isn’t.
For a hitter like Goldschmidt, with as much production as he has in his recent history against fastballs, “should be” but “isn’t” probably means “will soon.” Expect his production against fastballs to increase and to do so right away.
Bad Luck is Not Created Equal
When we think of bad luck for a hitter, we often think of BABIP – batting average on balls in play. It can be an indicator of the luckiness of a hitter since it tends to normalize to around .300 for most batters. If a player has good Statcast data, solid or consistent batted ball types (particularly line drives), and otherwise normal-ish peripherals, a lower-than-expected BABIP tends to imply some bad luck. A low BABIP with inconsistent batted ball types and bad peripherals usually indicates a bad hitter.
There are some players who defy the normal BABIP rules and the Cardinals have made a point of targeting such players over the last decade (with mixed results). Goldschmidt is one of these types. His current BABIP is .308. That’s very close to league norms. However, his career BABIP is .348 — almost 50 points above league normalization. In a full season in the majors, Goldy never had a BABIP below .340 until 2019, when he landed at .303 in the worst overall season of his career.
Has he just been unlucky (for him) compared to the rest of his career? Sort of. His line-drive rate is down – which certainly ticks off a few BABIP points. His ground ball rate is in line with the last few seasons, but it is significantly lower than his typical years in Arizona. Maybe that also ticks off a few BABIP points, since hard-hit grounders can sneak through a defense regularly, especially for a batter who is immune to a shift. (Goldy is.)
Those batted ball changes, though, have led to an increase in fly-ball rate. For a slugger like Goldschmidt, more fly balls are generally more better. (English good!) It’s not this year because Goldy is experiencing the lowest HR/FB rate of his non-COVID years – 12.5%. Considering his overall high average exit velocity, it’s hard not to see this as anything less than pure terrible luck. Or maybe the new ball, but I’m inclined to chalk it up to luck for now.
Statcast agrees and gives him credit for 2 balls that should have left the park but did not. That brings us right back to his expected slugging – .494 – versus his actual slugging – .396.
Homeruns have no impact on BABIP. They have a HUGE impact on overall production. By batted ball type, I think Goldy should be a little higher than he is. Maybe in the .325 BABIP range. Then throw the missing homers in. Suddenly Goldy is not quite himself, but his on-base percentage, wOBA, xwOBA, wRC+, and WAR would all climb notably. Maybe close to or a little above his xwOBA — .337. If Goldy was sitting with a .340 wOBA right now, especially after a good week at the plate, I’m probably not writing this article.
OR we can take the ZiPS and Steamer approach and claim that Goldy’s BABIP is going to inexplicably normalize at age 33 with little change in exit velocity and batted ball data because computers. ZiPS says he’s basically Tino Martinez from here forward.
Look, it could happen. I wouldn’t even bring it up if it wasn’t possible. I just don't buy it. For now, I’ll stick with a double-whammy of BABIP+HR bad luck, particularly against fastballs, clustered around some lamentable swing rates as the best explanation for Goldy’s current struggles.
When Will Things Turn for Goldy?
Maybe they already have? For May, Goldy is hitting .355/.394/.581. That’s a wRC+ of 170 and a wOBA of .420. Sure, that walk rate is still low – just 6.1% — but when you’re hitting the ball as well as he is over a small sample size, you expect the walk rate to be low. His BABIP over that time is .474.
Where does that leave him? I wouldn’t rule out a 2021 season that looks more like 2019 than 2020 or 2018. He’s already dug himself a hole that will be hard for him to get out of. 20% of his season stats are already written in stone. He did something similar in 2019 when he got off to a slow start before righting the ship but the damage was already done.
Goldy is also getting older. His rising K-rate, falling ISO, and declining BABIP are all consistent with aging profiles. We should expect some of this. The question is how far will Goldy fall and how fast? ZiPs thinks it will happen immediate. I think he’s still a fantastic hitter, even if he’s not showing it as often as we might like. I would bet on the slide happening pretty slowly. So, don’t worry too much about him. At least not yet.