Looking for the Next Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt is one of the very best hitters on the planet. Through the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks star first baseman wields a batting line of .340/.455/.610, giving him a 183 wRC+ — the fourth-highest such mark among qualified hitters. He was one of the game’s best hitters last year, too. And also the year before that. In his four full seasons in the league, he’s posted wRC+s of 124, 156, 155 and 183. In terms of WAR, he’s been the fifth-best player in baseball since 2013.

Goldy raked in the minors, as well. Before the D-Backs called him up for the stretch run in 2011, he hit an absurd .306/.435/.626 in Double-A. In his two previous minor-league seasons, he hit a similarly absurd .321/.392/.617. From 2009 to 2011, Mr. Goldschmidt ranked third, first and first, respectively, in his leagues by wRC+.

Yet, despite his minor-league exploits, Goldschmidt was never really thought to be much of a prospect. Best I can tell, literally nobody included him in a single top-100 list. Baseball America ranked him 13th and 11th in the Diamondbacks organization the two years he was eligible. John Sickels had him in the 21-30 bucket and then 9th on his organizational list. Baseball Prospectus had him unranked and then 10th. Here at FanGraphs, Marc Hulet had him unranked and 11th. Heading into 2011, the year he broke into the majors leagues, he ranked behind the likes of Bobby Borchering and Keon Broxton.

So, how, exactly, did Goldschmidt manage to exceed expectations? Part of it had to do with his physical conditioning, on which he reportedly worked very hard. It seems as though a more athletic physique has enabled him to be a better defender and baserunner than he was in his days as a prospect. Following the 2010 season, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus described Goldschmidt as “a 30 runner (on the 20-80 scouting scale) with very limited range.” That doesn’t really sound like the Goldschmidt we’ve come to know. In reality, Goldschmidt’s been at least average at first base, and has also been an asset on the base paths. But even if we set aside the defense and baserunning aspects of his game, Goldschmidt’s developed into one of the most feared hitters on the planet. His bat alone has allowed him to blow past all expectations set for him when he was a C-list prospect in the Diamondbacks system.

Looking back at Goldschmidt’s minor-league days, there was plenty to like about his stat line. Most impressive of all was his power. Goldschmidt posted ISOs of .303, .291 and .320 in Rookie ball, High-A and Double-A, respectively, which were each tops in his league. He led his league in home runs in one of those years, and tied for the league lead in the other two, including his partial year in Double-A.

Goldschmidt complemented his crazy power with ample walks. Overall, he walked in 13% of his minor-league plate appearances, including a remarkable 18% clip in Double-A, right before he was called up to the majors for good. Like a true three-outcome slugger, he paired his power and walks with strikeout rates north of 20%. However, given his power and patience, Goldschmidt’s lack of contact shouldn’t have been that big of a red flag. As always, you take the good with the bad.

Some may have overlooked Goldschmidt due to his age relative to his level. While he made a mockery of Rookie ball in his draft year, he did so as a 21-year-old coming out of college. Most college bats worth their salt skip over Rookie ball, and open their careers in one of the of A-Ball levels. Realizing how advanced Goldschmidt was at the plate, the Diamondbacks pushed him to High-A the following year. But, even then, he wasn’t particularly young for his level as a 22-year-old.

Goldy hit about as well as anybody in his two-plus years in the minor leagues. If KATOH was around back when Goldy was a prospect, it would have projected him for a respectable 3.6 WAR (through age 28) after his age-22 season in High-A and an elite 15.2 WAR following his gaudy Double-A season. Even after considering his strikeout rate and accounting for his age relative to his level, his stats should have been enough to turn a few more heads than they did. No one could have foreseen that he’d be a perennial MVP candidate, but he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, either.

Yet, few seemed to pay him much attention. I can’t help but wonder if there’s something we can learn from Goldschmidt’s case. Perhaps players who fit his profile — power hitters with a good amount of strikeouts who aren’t particularly young for their level — are overlooked more often than they should be.

Looking at his top historical comps by way of some Mahalanobis Distance calculations, it seems as though other Paul Goldschmidts have also turned out pretty well. Here are the top comps using his High-A numbers…

Rank Mah Dist Player PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 1.0 Delwyn Young 779 0.2
2 1.7 Johermyn Chavez* 0 0.0
3 1.8 Jim Betzsold 0 0.0
4 1.9 Jose Leon 221 0.0
5 1.9 Kyle Jensen* 0 0.0
6 1.9 Brett Magnusson 0 0.0
7 2.0 Scott Morgan 0 0.0
8 2.1 Tim Graham 0 0.0
9 2.1 Sean Rodriguez 1,594 6.2
10 2.1 Joe Gaetti 0 0.0
11 2.2 Jeff Kent 2,330 9.2
12 2.3 Marty Cordova 2,132 3.8
13 2.3 Carlos Peguero* 319 0.5
14 2.4 Scott Schebler* 3 0.1
15 2.4 Bryan Baar 0 0.0
16 2.4 Brian Dopirak 0 0.0
17 2.5 Koby Clemens* 0 0.0
18 2.5 Brian Turner 0 0.0
19 2.5 Scott Van Slyke* 586 4.6
20 2.5 Chris Kirgan 0 0.0

*Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season.

That’s not the most encouraging list of players, but there are some quality names in there, including Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Kent and Marty Cordova. Things get quite a bit more exciting, though, when you run this for his Double-A numbers. Check it out.

Rank Mah Dist Player PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 2.1 Mike Olt* 314 0.0
2 2.6 Adam Piatt 588 0.6
3 2.9 Carlos Santana 2,761 14.7
4 3.0 Troy Neel 861 3.1
5 3.0 Josh Willingham 1,234 3.8
6 3.2 Ben Broussard 1,539 3.3
7 3.4 Brandon Sing 0.0 0.0
8 3.5 Ben Grieve 3,718 6.7
9 4.2 Jon Knott 37 0.0
10 4.2 Justin Leone 115 0.2
11 4.2 Michael Cuddyer 2,367 7.3
12 4.4 Jeff Larish 276 0.0
13 4.4 Josh Phelps 1,333 1.8
14 4.4 Carlos Pena 1,925 3.3
15 4.4 Charles Johnson 2,779 19.9
16 4.5 Morgan Ensberg 1,057 5.3
17 4.5 Stanton Cameron 0 0.0
18 4.8 Lance Berkman 3,248 27.8
19 4.9 Phil Nevin 1,289 2.1
20 4.9 Marcus Thames 399 0.7

*Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season.

Not all of those players became quality big leaguers, but an awful lot of them did. Santana, Grieve, Willingham, Cuddyer, Pena, Johnson, Ensberg, Berkman: that’s an awful lot of hits — certainly more than I usually get from these Mahalanobis comparisons.

Seeing how successful many these players were, it might be worth taking a stab at identifying future Paul Goldschmidts. Surely, there are players today who are putting up numbers that are comparable to what Goldschmidt or Jeff Kent or Carlos Santana did while at the same level. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Goldschmidt’s 2011 season in Double-A and all current Double-A players. Below, you’ll find a list of current players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Goldschmidt’s final season in the minors, ranked from most to least similar…

Rank Mah Dist Name Age 2015 wRC+
1 2.8 Miguel Sano 22 158
2 3.5 Kyle Schwarber 22 189
3 5.0 Anthony Garcia 23 148
4 5.1 Zach Borenstein 24 178
5 6.5 Trevor Story 22 156
6 6.6 Jabari Blash 25 157
7 6.7 Aaron Altherr 24 146
8 6.7 Drew Robinson 23 127
9 6.8 Greg Bird 22 134
10 8.4 Jacob Wilson 24 116

I repeated this exercise using Goldschmidt’s 2010 season and all current High-A players, using Goldy’s penultimate minor league season.

Rank Mah Dist Name Age 2015 wRC+
1 1.4 Chase Mcdonald 23 158
2 2.3 Nelson Rodriguez 21 142
3 2.7 Sebastian Elizalde 23 138
4 3.4 Matt Dean 22 117
5 3.4 Jordan Patterson 23 155
6 3.6 Brett Phillips 21 160
7 4.4 JaCoby Jones 23 118
8 4.5 Lewis Brinson 21 156
9 4.8 J.D. Davis 22 127
10 4.9 Aaron Brown 23 110

Some of these prospects are household names, like Miguel Sano and Kyle Schwarber. But most of the players who grace the tops of these lists are relatively obscure prospects. Although they’ve hit extremely well in the minors this year, guys like Anthony GarciaZach BorensteinChase Mcdonald and Nelson Rodriguez are barely on the prospect radar at all. I’d also like to call attention to Jabari Blash, whose name has to be at least double-plus.

This was a fun little project (for me, at least), and these names are interesting to look at. But I’ll be the first to admit that this was something of a flawed exercise. As good as Goldschmidt has become, he’s also just one data point who happened to blow past even the loftiest of expectations. There’s very little reason to think that any of the players listed above will come close to matching his success.

Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that prospects coming from Goldschmidt’s mold warrant a bit more attention than they’ve typically received in the past. Most of the players listed above are unlikely to be stars, but I think their offensive exploits make them worth keeping an eye on, at least. After all, one of the best players in baseball looked a lot like they did when he was their age.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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8 years ago

After reading the title, the first name that I thought was AJ Reed.

8 years ago
Reply to  Max

Same here.

8 years ago
Reply to  carrsallstars

Ditto for me. My guess is that he wasn’t included in the sample since his K% haven’t been over 20% in A+ or AA. I believe that was one of the sampling criteria. He’s at 19% in both A+ and AA. If he expanded the sample to include guys just under 20%, I imagine Reed would be near the top of the list.