Going Deep: The Puzzling Performance of Paul Goldschmidt
“Lean on Paul Goldschmidt,” they said. “He’s a stalwart,” they said.
So you did. And now here you are, inching toward the end of June, and Goldy has been worth less than a win through the first half. You are probably wrestling with whether you should exercise patience or panic with him. His OPS heading into play on June 28 — .759 — is the worst of his career through the first half of a season, by a whopping 133 points.
The last time it was so low was his first full campaign, in 2012. Then there was last year, when his OPS to this point in the season was .899. Through May, though, his OPS was just .776. One thing in play was the humidor installed at Chase Field, turning it from a hitter’s haven to a far more neutral, and, early on, even pitcher-friendly park. The ball quite literally had less bounce to it, which seemed as though it may have taken up residence in Goldschmidt’s brain for a short period of time. But when the calendar turned to June, he went bonkers. He went on to finish the year with 5.1 fWAR and a .922 OPS. All seemed to be forgotten.
|Metric||2011-17||2018||2019 (through 6/27)|
|LB/FB Exit Velo||96.1||95.9||94.7|
It is hard not to remember that similarly slow start last year, and there is more discernible funk in Goldschmidt’s game at the moment. When he was at his most reliable through 2017, he was making less hard contact but muscling up the ball more when he did square it up. The trend has reversed now. His ability to drive the ball in the air through 2018 put him in about the 85th percentile in all of baseball. This year he is still two ticks above average exit velocity, though he is down to the 75th percentile through the league. Oddly, only four hitters have hit the ball hard with more frequency than him this season.
Consider all of this: (1) the ball has changed multiple times in the last few years and (2) Baseball Info Solutions may have tweaked how they calculate hard contact. Most importantly, however, Goldschmidt’s still driving the ball at a rate that would portend more success than he’s seen to this point in the season. There has to be more going on.
Let’s peek at his plate approach:
The red line here is Goldschmidt’s reach rate. The blue line is his OPS. The more he has extended outside the zone, the less productive he has been. That is not exactly rocket science. It is the case for a vast majority of hitters, though it seems Goldschmidt’s has becomed more pronounced in 2019. What is bizarre, however, is that plate discipline usually ages well. For someone with such an eye for the zone — he’s never walked less than 10% in his career — it is odd paradox for the skill to work against him at this point.
Even still, it may not be entirely fair to say that Goldschmidt’s performance this season has simply been a matter of chasing more and inherently giving himself a chance to barrel fewer balls. This is a guy who is in rarified air in the annals of baseball history. He is one of just 38 players to have an OPS of .930 or better in 4,500+ plate appearances.
Doing that takes a clear level of near-constant skill for years on end. But there is one thing that’s more interesting in regard to Goldschmidt’s struggles than how he’s putting the ball in the air: How he’s putting it on the ground.
|Metric||2011-17||2018||2019 (through 6/26)|
|Sprint speed (ft/s)||27.2*||26.9||26.2|
It should be noted that Statcast only has sprint speed dating back to 2015. But we know speed ages poorly; that we shouldn’t expect our slugging first baseman to continually average 20+ steals per year like he did from 2015-17. But Goldschmidt may have been onto something when he kept the ball off the ground last year. It stands to reason that, if you are running slower, you are giving infielders a chance to gobble up grounders to throw you out. While he’s currently working with a groundball rate that more closely resembles his career number, he may not be able to move fast enough to compensate for it anymore. Before this year, he was above average for first basemen. Now, he’s a below average runner. He’s a second slower to first than he has been, historically. To put it another way, in that amount of time, the average fastball could reach the plate twice before Goldschmidt gets to first. All of this, combined with connecting more on balls out of the zone, could help explain how his average on balls in play is more than 40 points off his career mark.
Zooming out a little usually helps clarify things. But it almost feels like we could reflect on Goldschmidt’s 2019 until we’re blue in the face and still feel puzzled. Do we buy into him having met Father Time over the winter? Do we wait for what could be the most the most basic, but essential skill – hitting the ball hard – to bear fruit? Do we blink and hope to know what to do when our eyes open in the next split second?
Let’s look to that rarified air mentioned above. Given how few players have hit as well as Goldschmidt throughout their careers, we’re already working with a small sample. Given how the game has changed, and how batted ball data only goes back to 2002, the sample gets sliced thinner than any deli could do. But we do get a few comps for Goldschmidt that could help us understand a possible adjustment.
|Player||Pull% Through ~4,500 PA||Pull% After ~4,500 PA|
Firstly, two of these Goliaths come with caveats. Ortiz is only considered here from the time he became a member of the Red Sox, since that’s when he really became the player we all know. The numbers for Pujols include his rookie year in 2001, which eludes our batted ball data. Regardless, these three show us a common theme. As the best have gotten older, they’ve made it a point to pull the ball more. The amount of plate appearances they’ve had makes the small percentage difference significant, especially when looking at their pull percentage closer to the tail end of the careers of Ortiz and Pujols.
This might be where Goldschmidt can adapt. He crossed the 4,500 plate appearance mark this season. But so far as a Cardinal, he’s pulling the ball four percent less than he did last year as a DBack, trading it for contact up the middle. If he’s going to continue to hit more grounders, he might want to get more mileage out of the flyballs and liners he connects with by sending them down the left field line.
With how hard he drives the ball, something’s got to give with Goldschmidt’s numbers this year. But even when he bounces back, we may be witnessing him entering the stage in his career where he’s above average but no longer a superstar.
(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)