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Paul Goldschmidt has Turned Back the Clock — But Not Far Enough

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The Cardinals’ biggest bat is not having a good 2021. That’s bad news, so let’s dig in.

St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

A little over two years ago, I wrote a column entitled, “Paul Goldschmidt Has a Patience Problem.” It’s not a bad column; not one of my best, but not bad at all. I’d say sort of middle of the pack. Looking back, it’s fun to remember a time when Paul DeJong looked like an MVP candidate, as he did for the first couple months of 2019. To be fair, DeJong did have a fantastic season that year, posting a four-win campaign and some otherworldly defensive numbers, but he stopped hitting that summer, and we’ve never really seen that guy come back since. If you want to read that old article, go ahead. If not, don’t worry; I’ll summarise most of the key points as I go here today.

At the time I wrote the aforementioned column, Paul Goldschmidt was the biggest news in Cardinal land. Having been acquired the prior offseason, Goldy was supposed to be the final, um, nearly said solution there, how about ultimate solution to the problem that had plagued the Redbirds for several seasons: the lack of a big bat in the middle of the lineup to drive the offense. The Cardinals had been seeking a true offensive centerpiece since at least the untimely death of Oscar Taveras (who, admittedly, was a theoretical offensive force, rather than an actual one in his rookie season), and more realistically since the Matt Holliday/Carlos Beltran/Yadi Prime axis of offense (dude, what is wrong with you this morning?), was dismantled following the 2013 season. Yes, Matt Carpenter was a pretty consistent force throughout the 2013-2018 era, but he was never quite good enough to be the best player on a championship club, and the shape of his value made him a less than ideal fit as a middle of the order run producer. After 2013, Beltran left for the Yankees, Yadi’s offense fell off from his late-20s MVP-level peak, and Matt Holliday saw his own precipitous drop off at age 34 in 2014.

The Cards had traded for Jason Heyward to replace Taveras, and while Heyward had a more or less career year in red in 2015, he left for Chicago following that season and, honestly, was never the sort of player you would count on to define and drive an offense. Excellent player, yes. Offensive centerpiece, no. Talking about Allen Craig and what happened to him post-2013 just makes me sad. Matt Adams never did develop into the hitter we hoped he would be. Marcell Ozuna cost the Cardinals two great arms and did not solve the problem. Tommy Pham briefly looked like a true superstar, but his career also always felt like it was hanging by a thread (not to mention destined to be much too short thanks to his eye issues), and sadly Tommy in San Diego looks like his day in the sun may be coming to an end. Stephen Piscotty was a fine player, but not a transcendent hitter. Ditto Randal Grichuk. The Cardinals simply could not find a big time hitter, a defining bat, to anchor the offense.

All that changed, we thought, when El Birdos pulled off a deal for Goldschmidt in the 2018-2019 offseason, sending a package of players co-headined by catcher Carson Kelly (don’t look up his stats, I beg you), and Luke Weaver to the desert in return for a multiple-time All-Star and perennial MVP vote-getter. This, at last, was the answer. This was the Big Bat the prophecies all spoke of, and the promised land was just around the corner.

Which brings us then to May of 2019.

In May of 2019, Paul Goldschmidt was not hitting like a franchise-changing player. On May 9th of his first season as a Cardinal, Goldy was hitting .252/.331/.457, which translates to a 107 wRC+, or a just-above-league-average batting line. In other words, the transformative bat the Cardinals traded for in the offseason was not transforming much of anything.

As I am often wont to do, as per my personal preferences and also contractual obligations in creating content, I attempted to diagnose the issue(s) with Paul Goldschmidt. What I came up with was this: Paul Goldschmidt was just swinging too much, full stop. The guy in Arizona who once posted a 17% walk rate and a .435 on-base percentage had been replaced by a guy walking barely over 10% of the time, running a ~28% strikeout rate and struggling to get on base. Goldschmidt was swinging at more pitches out of the zone, more pitches inside the zone, more everything. And that lack of selectivity was costing him — and the Cardinals.

Now, what happened after I penned that column? Well, Goldschmidt ended up having a pretty solid season for the Redbirds in 2019, finishing out the season with a .346 OBP and a 116 wRC+. That’s not bad. It is not, it must be said, transformative, nor is it the kind of production you want from the guy who’s supposed to be The Guy, but it’s pretty good. The bad news was that Goldy never did really get going in terms of patience at the plate, ending the year with a walk rate of 11.4% — again, not bad, but not the kind of number he was putting up in his best Arizona seasons — and a strikeout rate of 24.3%. His isolated slugging percentage was .216, which is solid, but his batting average on balls in play was only .303, which for Goldschmidt is actually quite low (his career BABIP is a cool .347). He did damage when he connected, mostly, but his plate approach just wasn’t where it had been. He swung too much in April, and May, and pretty much the rest of 2019.

And then came 2020.

Yes, it was a weird season in 2020, what with the pandemic shuttering the league for months, and the Cardinals having their own outbreak that confined everyone to hotel rooms for weeks, and all the extra games condensed into a short period of time, and everything else that went along with that bizarre slog we endured last year. Given all that, it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from the numbers players did or did not put up, simply because everything was weird. Disclaimer over, and I will now note that Paul Goldschmidt played in 58 games in 2020 and amassed 231 plate appearances, so we’re talking about over a third of a season’s worth of playing time. It’s a big enough sample to pay attention to, is what I’m saying.

Paul Goldschmidt in 2020 had one of the best plate approaches I think I’ve ever seen from a player. He cut his strikeout rate from just over 24% in 2019 to 18.6% in 2020. His walk rate jumped from that 11.4% number to 16%. In an era of ever-increasing strikeouts and low batting averages and weak on-base numbers, Goldy ran a K:BB ratio near 1:1, hit .304, got on base at a .417 clip, and ultimately posted a batting line 46% better than league average. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sort of production you want from your star first baseman.

Now, admittedly, it’s worth noting that some of the other stuff in Goldy’s offensive profile last year looked a little off. His BABIP shot back up into prime Goldschmidt territory, at .364, so there was probably a little good fortune involved, although less for him maybe than some other hitter who puts up that number. His ISO did drop significantly, from .216 to just .162, so he wasn’t doing as much damage when he connected as he had in the past. He was connecting much more often, though, and turning way more of those balls in play into hits.

In other words, if I may draw a comparison, it looked like Paul Goldschmidt’s next career act was to go full Joey Votto, turning himself into an on-base monster who got lots of hits and was just always on base one way or another, even if he wasn’t putting balls over the wall at an elite clip. For a player whose power was potentially declining a bit, and maybe didn’t have quite the aura of fear in the strike zone he once did, that move would make a ton of sense. It is also worth noting that Goldschmidt’s power seemed to have taken a nosedive specifically in terms of him elevating balls that he might have once crushed to the bleachers. In 2019, Goldy’s average launch angle on balls in play was 15.5 degrees; that was basically identical to his 2018 number of 15.7. In other words, Paul Goldschmidt hit the ball approximately the same way in 2019 as he had in 2018. His barrel percentage was down, his exit velocity was down a little, and his sweet spot percentage was down a little, which are all the reasons why he went from an elite hitter in 2018 to a solid but unspectacular hitter in 2019.

In 2020, though, things were very different. His launch angle in 2020 was just 11.7 degrees, meaning he was hitting the ball on a much lower trajectory on average. His barrel percentage was a little down, but his sweet spot% — and the sweet spot here refers to a batted ball with an ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle to result in a hit — was way up, from 36.2% to 42.3%. Goldy in 2020 wasn’t launching a ton of balls into the stratosphere, but he was hitting a metric ton of hard line drives that turned into hits. Again, think of Joey Votto, or Matt Carpenter in his best years. Lots of balls hit in an ideal fashion to find open green space. Goldy’s expected weighted on base average of .396 in 2020 was top 6% in the league; he actually underperformed slightly in terms of his expected slugging, but his walk rate was also top 6% in baseball. Lots of hits, lots of walks, not a lot of strikeouts. It was a beautiful mid- to later-career adjustment by a remarkably intelligent hitter, it seemed.

Which brings us, finally, to today, and a Paul Goldschmidt who is currently running exactly a league-average batting line. Goldy in 2021 is hitting .254/.307/.405, which translates to a 100 wRC+. Average on the nose. For a first baseman, that is not good. To be fair, Goldy has been better of late; since the tenth of May he’s running a 120 wRC+ and just a 12.3% strikeout rate (10.5% BB rate), so there’s some interesting stuff going on with him. For the season, though, Goldschmidt is walking just 7.0% of the time, versus a 22.6% strikeout rate. Now, that K rate itself is not terrible, but the ratio of walks to strikeouts is quite bad. That’s how you get a guy only reaching base 30% of the time. His BABIP is also back down to 2019 levels, at .306, but his ISO is, worryingly, down at 2020 levels — .151. Hitting for very little power with the on-base skills of 2019 Goldy instead of 2020 Goldy is not a recipe for success.

So what has happened to Goldschmidt this year? Well, to put it simply, he’s back to swinging at 2019 levels, but the results are not as good. In 2019, he swung at pitches outside the strike zone (o-swing%), 31.4% of the time. In 2020, that number fell to 25.3%, so he was spitting on balls and letting them go by. This year, his o-swing% is right back at 31%. His z-swing% (swings at balls inside the strike zone), in 2019 was 67.7%, substantially higher than it had been the rest of his career. In 2020, that number was 62.6%, pretty close to in line with his best seasons in the desert. His 2021 z-swing%: 67.1%. His overall swing percentage in his best Arizona years mostly fell in the 39-41% range. In 2019, he swung at 46.4% of all pitches he saw. In 2020, his swing rate was 40.5%. In 2021, it’s back up to 47.3%.

His contact rates aren’t really out of whack, but they also weren’t hugely different from 2019 to 2020. He did make a career-high amount of contact on pitches inside the zone — 85.9% — which has fallen by about three percentage points this season, but in that case it’s 2020 that was the real outlier, and suggested a new approach entirely, rather than a return to the patient ways of his earlier career, with maybe an even greater emphasis on avoiding strikeouts as a potential advantage as he moves toward the twilight of his physical peak.

The too long, didn’t read version of all these numbers is this: in 2019, Paul Goldschmidt saw his plate discipline slip compared to what it had been in Arizona. He hit for a good amount of power, particularly considering ballpark differences from the desert to St. Louis, but his on-base skills looked to be eroding. In 2020, he reversed that trend entirely, and in fact turned it on its head, as he embraced an ultra-disciplined approach that saw him forego pure power production in favour of walks and lots of high-probability line drive contact. He turned balls in play into hits at a very high level, and he got on base by getting more shots at those balls in play via a low strikeout rate and took lots of walks, making him a magnificent hitter once again, even at the age of 32, when perhaps the raw physical tools he once possessed were beginning to erode. It looked like the start of an exciting new era of Paul Goldschmidt potentially redefining himself as a hitter, and extending the best part of his career through experience and approach.

This year, though, Goldy has unfortunately gone right back to the overly aggressive swing-happy hacker he was in 2019, and he is mired in the same league-averageish bucket of hitting he found himself in that season. The strikeouts are not an issue, necessarily, but he’s not getting on base via non-contact PA results, and he’s not turning balls in play into hits at an elite level any longer either.

Oh, and one more thing. One more potentially devastating thing. He’s not hitting for power anymore, either. In 2019, he was swinging too much, but he was doing damage often enough to be productive all the same. In 2021, he is not doing that same level of damage, and the lots-of-bites at the apple, lots of hits approach of 2020 is nowhere to be seen. So why the downturn in damage?

Well, remember a few minutes ago, when I pointed out that Goldschmidt’s launch angle in 2018 and ‘19 were very similar, in the ~15.5 degree range? And that that number went down to 11.7 degrees in 2020? (Coincidentally, or maybe not, that 11-12 degree range is where he was from 2015-2017, the earliest years for which we have launch angle data.) In 2021, Goldschmidt’s average launch angle is a sky-high 19.7 degrees, by far the highest of his career. (Well, highest of his career that we have that data on, but I can’t imagine it was higher at the beginning of career for some unknown reason.) Paul Goldschmidt is hitting the ball at a much higher angle off the bat than he ever has before. He’s also hitting more infield fly balls that ever before, which could account for a big chunk of that high launch angle, but not all of it.

So why is that a problem? Well, for one thing it’s usually a problem when we see a very successful player do a similar thing for most of his career, then suddenly change seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes we see bad players do that and it’s a miraculous improvement; if a player was an All-Star before and then something drastic changes, chances are it’s bad. More importantly, as has been covered here and in other places as well, the changes to the baseball that MLB made this season have sapped a certain amount of distance from fly balls, meaning that we can no longer expect as good a results from balls in the air as we had previously. The poster boy for this issue on the Cardinals has, to date, been Matt Carpenter, who appears to be hitting the ball quite hard on average, but is seeing terrible results. Early on people were arguing that meant Carp should be in line for some positive regression; upon further inspection, it looks like Matt Carpenter is just hitting a bunch of medium-deep fly balls to the big part of the ballpark, which is a remarkably good way to be a very bad hitter. Paul Goldschmidt, unfortunately, is probably suffering from some of that same malady. He’s hitting the ball harder overall in 2021 than in 2020 — his 93 mph average exit velocity this year is in the top 6% of all players — but he’s also hitting those balls hard at a very high angle, meaning a ton of that velocity is being wasted going straight up, rather than in a more productive, more horizontal direction.

The better question, I suppose, is why is this happening? And honestly, I don’t have a great answer to that query. Anecdotally, it seems to me pitchers are challenging Goldschmidt up and in more this season; the ball he popped up in the final game of the series against the Cubs stands out in my mind especially. In the seventh inning of a scoreless game, Goldschmidt came up to bat with the bases loaded and just one out. He was facing Ryan Tepera, one of the Cubs’ stronger relievers this season. On the first pitch of the at-bat, Tepera threw a cutter well outside, and Goldy spit on it. The second pitch, though, was a 94 mph two-seam fastball right at Goldschmidt’s hands, and he popped it straight up into foul territory, where Willson Contreras made the catch to essentially get the Cubs out of trouble. Yes, Nolan Arenado was still up with a chance for a big moment, but the Cardinals had their offensive engine up with less than two outs and a runner on third, and they failed to score. To my eye, it feels like pitchers have been coming at Goldschmidt in a similar fashion a lot this year, and he’s falling for that same pitch a lot.

Admittedly, that’s entirely anecdotal, and maybe one of my fellow authors can do some actual research here and give us a better picture of the situation. I will not, because a) this column is already too long as it is, and b) staring at heat maps makes me question my choices in life, so I will leave it to someone less prone to existential crises than myself to possibly look into that angle of things. Regardless, the fact is that Paul Goldschmidt is hitting the ball very high this year, and even though he’s hitting it harder than he was last season, a lot of that velocity is being wasted, with a guy in the stands watching his latest fly ball saying, “No way, no way. Too high.” And unlike in Major League, that guy is actually right.

So to sum all this up, we have a formerly great player who came to St. Louis a couple years ago and immediately looked a little less great. He looked like a similar player to the one he had been in Arizona, only a little older, and a little slower, and just a little worse. Then that same player seemingly redefined himself in 2020, with a brilliant turn as a plate discipline god and line drive monster, and things looked like maybe we had a fantastic story on our hands. And now, here in 2021, we have a player who looks more like the less good player he was two years ago than the revelation of last season, only he’s a little worse again, hitting the ball in a way that seems to not work nearly so well with the 2021 ball as the 2019 ball, and I just want to know what happened to the 2020 guy.

If Goldy could turn the clock back all the way to 2015 and hit the way he did that year, that would be great. Somehow, though, I doubt that’s going to happen. I can tell you from personal experience that my body doesn’t feel the same in 2021 it did in 2015, and I’m not trying to play the hardest sport in the world at the highest level possible. (Seriously, there are days when I get out of bed and the noises my joints make are utterly terrifying. And that’s literally just getting into a standing position.) And absent that miracle of turning the clock back six years, it would be better if, instead of turning the clock back to 2019, Goldy would try to be the guy he clearly planned for being in 2020.

Because this? This is not working.