An Inconclusive Exploration of Paul Goldschmidt’s Passivity

I don’t believe I’m out of line when I say that, of life’s most enjoyable pleasures, many are to be used, collected, consumed, or practiced in moderation. “You can have too much of a good thing,” they say. Food and alcohol, for example. Both delightful. Both substances which, were I unaware of the consequences of surplus consumption, I would regularly consume in excess. Both substances, in fact, which I do regularly consume in excess, despite being completely aware of the consequences. Likewise, I’ve taken nary a vacation which I didn’t find overindulgent. Don’t get me wrong — a break from the norm for a bit of traveling is always welcome, but I’m perpetually exhausted by the degree of stimulation that comes with falling asleep and waking up in a new bed, having to process an unfamiliar environment and having to create and enact routines that differ from the ones to which I am accustomed. Perhaps I’m just outing myself as a homebody, but without fail, I long for the comforts of a familiar bed, environment, and routine approximately 24-48 hours prior to the conclusion of any extended trip.

I recently sought to find an example of overindulgence in a baseball. A player whose approach, for example, was perhaps hindered by too much of a good thing. It was sort of an offshoot of the post I wrote yesterday which concerned Miguel Sano’s surprisingly disciplined approach against breaking balls. In that post, I found, among other things, that Sano took plenty of early at-bat breaking pitches for balls, and so he found himself in plenty of hitter’s counts, and not only that, but he capitalized on his abundant hitter’s counts by amping up his aggression and attacking pitchers when he had the upper hand.

It’s a fairly fundamental strategy, but there’s a most extreme everything, and someone had to be on the other end. There has to be someone who finds themselves in plenty of hitter’s counts but, for whatever reason, actually becomes notably less aggressive and less attack-oriented when they hold count leverage over the pitcher.

So I ran some BaseballSavant queries and I produced a couple lists in a spreadsheet that showed me overall swing rate, and ahead-in-the-count swing rate, and I calculated the difference between the two. Some interesting names popped up near the top — Xander Bogaerts, Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rizzo — but something seemed off, and I realized an unaccounted-for variable in my search: not all batters are pitched the same when they’re ahead in the count. Certain hitters get far more or fewer pitches to hit when ahead in the count, and so their swing rates are partly dictated by the pitcher. To control for this, it would be wiser to search only for the difference between overall in-zone swing rate and ahead-in-the-count in-zone swing rate. This was a search that yielded a particularly intriguing result.

Most Passive Hitters in Hitter’s Counts
name OVR Z-Swing% AHD Z-Swing% Z-Swing% DIF
Paul Goldschmidt 62.4% 46.8% -15.6%
Adam Eaton 61.7% 47.3% -14.4%
Jace Peterson 64.8% 53.1% -11.6%
DJ LeMahieu 64.1% 52.5% -11.5%
Ben Zobrist 56.6% 45.5% -11.0%

Perhaps I’m unfairly characterizing Ben Zobrist here, but the bottom-five of the leaderboard essentially contains four slap-hitters and one of the very best hitters in all of baseball.

It seems sub-optimal for a hitter like Goldschmidt to reduce his in-zone swing rate by such an extreme amount when he has the upper hand in the count. It’s also hard to question anything Goldschmidt does at the plate, considering, y’know, that “one of the very best hitters in all of baseball” thing.

So I wanted to explore a bit more. First thing I did was run a Play Index search that netted me a leaderboard of the best and worst hitters, when ahead in the count, relative to their overall performance. The mystery continues:

Worst Hitter’s Count OPS, Relative to Overall OPS
Player OVR OPS AHD OPS AHD OPS+
Andrelton Simmons 0.660 0.675 102
Billy Burns 0.726 0.758 104
Manny Machado 0.861 0.899 104
Daniel Murphy 0.770 0.821 107
Nick Markakis 0.746 0.809 108
Gerardo Parra 0.780 0.850 109
Austin Jackson 0.696 0.763 110
Alexei Ramirez 0.642 0.706 110
Charlie Blackmon 0.797 0.895 112
Jhonny Peralta 0.745 0.840 113
Paul Goldschmidt 1.005 1.136 113

It’s not the most intuitive table, but think of it this way: on average, hitters see about a 30% increase in OPS when they’re ahead in the count. Zero of 141 qualified batters last year got worse in hitter’s counts, but the player who gained the smallest advantage was Andrelton Simmons, whose OPS increased by just 2% when he had count leverage. Again, it’s a table mostly populated by slap-hitters and then Goldschmidt, whose 13% production increase was 11th-worst among 141 batters.

Weird! I needed more. Here’s a Goldschmidt quote from a Dayn Perry article at CBSSports from last year’ All-Star Weekend:

“If you’re ahead in the count, you can afford to be a little more patient…”

OK! We have confirmation of intent. Maybe it’s just that Goldschmidt isn’t crazy about the thought of wasting a hitter’s count by putting a borderline strike in play. Maybe he’s fine taking a borderline pitch that gets called for a strike, knowing that he still possesses the pitch recognition, bat-to-ball and power skills to remain productive in even or two-strike counts. Maybe, even in hitter’s counts, rather than going into full-out aggression mode, he’s still looking for the perfect pitch.

Observe, Goldschmidt’s called strikes, in hitter’s counts, from last year:

newplot(1)

An abundance of pitches low-and-away! Goldschmidt doesn’t hit low-and-away pitches well — nobody does, really — and so the brunt of these seem like good pitches to take, even for a called strike in a hitter’s count.

And the swings?

newplot

Lot more down the middle, lot more up-and-in, which is where Goldschmidt most thrives. Could be that, even within the zone, Goldschmidt is pitched more carefully than most other hitters, and his pitch recognition allows him to be selectively aggressive in hitter’s counts. It’s not like he wasn’t good in hitter’s counts, anyway — his OPS was over 1 — he just didn’t see a huge improvement.

Just one more thing that popped up in a search of mine that may or may not be related:

That’s a different situation entirely, but it’s an interesting stat, and it caused me to do one more bit of research, and this surprised me:

Paul Goldschmidt vs. Joey Votto, Plate Discipline
Name O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
Joey Votto 19% 59% 37% 70% 83% 79% 46%
Paul Goldschmidt 22% 61% 39% 68% 82% 77% 45%

Votto is seen as having one of the most unique approaches in the game, one for which he’s sometimes (misguidedly) criticized. For however unique Votto’s passive approach may be, he and Goldschmidt are near-clones in this regard, and it might just be me, but I guess I never realized just how passive Goldschmidt is at the plate. It’s not the same approach with which he entered the league — each year, he’s become more and more patient, his profile more resembling Votto every year.

These things are complex, and go far beyond certain counts or certain swings or certain pitches, and all the cries over the years for Votto to change his approach are silly, for any one change in a certain count or against a certain pitch could have a butterfly effect that would throw off the equilibrium of all that makes Votto such an elite hitter. The same could be said for Goldschmidt, who’s become more and more Votto-like every year, to the point of their approaches being indistinguishable. And so everything’s fine, and if Goldschmidt can repeat what he did last year — which, there’s no reason to believe he won’t — then nothing should change. But boy, is it fun to fantasize about a world where he also sees that big boost in hitter’s counts. And scary. Imagine that: Paul Goldschmidt, even scarier to the pitchers.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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David Gagnon
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David Gagnon

An oversimplification here, but since he is clearly one of the league’s best hitters, perhaps the reason he has the worst boost in hitter’s counts is because he has made his skill-set work so well in non-hitter’s counts. His quote about being patient in hitter’s counts does not support my comment, but I also don’t feel like it invalidates it.