2021 was the first year that Paul Goldschmidt had a walk rate below 10%. It is impressive that the first baseman has consistently taken a high rate of walks throughout his 11 year career, but it possible that he has tweaked his approach to become more aggressive since joining the St. Louis Cardinals.
I say possible, because I am not yet sure if this is a permanent change. He has certainly become more aggressive since moving to St. Louis, but I don’t think that his days of having a double digit walk rate are over yet.
To begin with, the lower walk rate was driven by a much higher swing rate. The two highest swing rates of Goldschmidt’s career have come with St. Louis in 2019 (46.5%) and in 2021 (44.2%), so it does appear that he has tweaked his approach since joining the Cardinals. However, he has also seen significantly more pitches in the zone as a Cardinal. In fact, the two highest zone rates that he has seen in his career have come in 2019 (47.4%) and in 2021 (48.4%).
It seems that he may indeed be more aggressive, but that aggressiveness is tied to seeing better pitches to hit. He has seen a higher percentage of pitches in the zone, so he has swung at more pitches. That is a reasonable thing to do, especially with how well Goldschmidt can hit the ball. Not only did he see more pitches in the zone in 2021, but he also saw more pitches over the heart of the plate. A tied for career low 40.3% of pitches that Goldschmidt faced were located on the edge of the plate. 2021 is the first season since 2015 that he has seen less than 42% of pitches on the edge.
With how pitchers pitched to Goldschmidt in 2021, it makes sense that he would have a career low walk rate. This begs the question - is it here to stay?
Goldschmidt has shown no signs of slowing down at the plate as his results on contact have still been lethal to opposing hurlers. In fact, his average exit velocity of 92.6 mph is a career high since Statcast began tracking in 2015. If he can continue to crush the ball, then swinging more and putting more balls in play might be a good approach for the 34-year-old.
There is an issue with this, though, as Goldschmidt increased his chase rate as much as he increased his swing rate on pitches inside the zone. The first baseman’s career average chase rate is 23.7%. In 2019, it was 28.2% and in 2021 it was 25.2%. It’s not like these are horrible figures. Neither of them are even above the league average of 28.3%. Still, they do mark a change for Goldschmidt during his time with the Cardinals.
The veteran still had a fine year at the plate despite this, posting a wRC+ of 138, which is just below his career average of 141, but it may be more difficult for Goldschmidt to maintain this approach as he ages since he may lose some bat speed.
It is difficult to tell if this more aggressive approach was a personal change or a team-led decision since Goldy’s aggression increased after joining the Cardinals. The most likely explanation may be a combination of a coaching decision and simply seeing more strikes.
It is important to note that Goldschmidt’s “aggressive” approach is still less aggressive than the average hitter. Even at his most aggressive, the first baseman still had a below average swing rate (league average is 47%).
It may actually benefit Goldschmidt to swing more, especially when he can still walk at a double digit rate. He seemed to find a balance between aggression and patience last season and it worked well for him. A career low strikeout rate also came as a result of Goldschmidt’s aggression. Both a career low walk rate and strikeout rate means a ton of balls put in play. Perhaps not coincidentally, Goldschmidt tallied a career high xwOBA.
It is interesting, though, that Goldschmidt’s second half walk rate (10.8%) was higher than his first half walk rate (9.1%). Perhaps 9% is too low for Goldschmidt, but there was also plenty of poor batted ball luck in the first half of his season. Still, it seems that a rate of about 10-11% is probably the baseline for Goldschmidt. This provides him a good blend of patience and plenty of contact.
It is impressive that the veteran was able to seamlessly shift from patience to more aggression (but still less than the normal hitter) and be productive with both approaches. I expect that Goldschmidt’s walk rate will increase next season since hitters are not likely to throw him as many pitches over the heart of the plate.
It is difficult to figure out how 2020 fits into this. It was a weird and short season so disregarding it may make the most sense. In 2020, Goldschmidt’s swing rate was closer to his Arizona days and his 16% walk rate was closer to his peak years with the Diamondbacks. Before 2021, it looked like the 60-game season may have marked a return to normal for Goldschmidt, but that was not the case.
It looks like Goldschmidt’s more aggressive approach is here to stay. The uptick in chase rate in 2019 and 2021 meant that he did more than just swing at the extra strikes that he saw last season - he made an effort to swing at more pitches in general. As long as he can hit continue to hit the ball as hard as he is used to, then this approach can work. A double digit walk rate should return for Goldy, and that is what Steamer has projected, but his days with a 14+% walk rate are probably gone.