Paul Goldschmidt and Small-Sample Theater

Although the Diamondbacks lost to the Giants on Tuesday night, Paul Goldschmidt finally got on the board with his first home run and first multi-hit game of the season. Normally, that would barely be worth mention, but the 30-year-old five-time All-Star first baseman is off to the worst start of his eight-year career, producing a batting line that teammate Zack Greinke wouldn’t sign for — that, at a time when the Diamondbacks have been busy banking wins while the heavily favored Dodgers scuffle. And even then, amid the small samples that reign at this time of year, one typically Goldschmidt-esque night made his start look far less dire.

The Diamondbacks, who a year ago won 93 games as well as the NL Wild Card game, are now 8-3, leading the NL West by 2.5 games. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, through Monday night, the Snakes, who were projected to finish 80-82 had improved their playoff odds more than any team besides the Mets.

What stands out most about the Diamondbacks’ start thus far is that it has had little to do with the success — or, more to the point, the lack of same — of what are generally viewed as their best players. Through Monday, the team’s 2017 leaders in position player WAR (Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb) and two of their top three in pitching WAR (Greinke and Robbie Ray) had combined to produce just 0.1 WAR. Meanwhile, the bulk of the heavy lifting… Well, let’s just pull back the curtain on Small Sample Theater:

Diamondbacks in Bizarroland
Name 2017 wRC+ 2018 wRC+ Change
Nick Ahmed 76 185 +109
Chris Owings 85 186 +101
A.J. Pollock 103 167 +64
David Peralta 104 156 +52
Daniel Descalso 88 85 -3
Jake Lamb 111 95 -16
Ketel Marte 89 62 -27
Paul Goldschmidt 142 70 -72
All stats through Monday, April 9.

Again, those stats are through Monday, not Tuesday, via which Goldschmidt raised his batting line to .158/.360/.316 for a 101 wRC+, still subpar but much less gawkworthy. Such substantive (positive) regression is the reason it’s dangerous to write about anything this early in the season — prior to his RBI triple on Monday, Goldschmidt’s wRC+ was an even more dismal 61 — and yet we forge ahead.

Pollock and Peralta are pretty good hitters off to great starts, but the eye-openers are Ahmed and Owings. Ahmed, a 28-year-old shortstop who entered the year batting .226/.273/.345 for a 77 wRC+ in 1,020 career PA, had been doing an impression of Nomar Garciaparra ca. 1999-2000, entering Tuesday with a .360/.429/.600 line. Owings, a 26-year-old shortstop-turned-outfielder who began the year with a .257/.295/.390 line and a 79 wRC+ in 1,830 PA, was hitting .400/.455/.567 with one homer, a three-run game-tying shot off Kenley Jansen. With hitless games on Tuesday night, the pair dropped their wRC+ to 162 and 154, respectively.

Those light hitters aren’t the only Diamondbacks who have picked good spots for big hits. Descalso’s lone homer came off Clayton Kershaw. Mathis, who entered the year owning the eighth-lowest wRC+ of any player with at least 2,000 PA, has driven in just one run, but it was a 15th-inning walk-off hit against the Dodgers in the game that Owings tied. It’s far too early to tell if the aforementioned hitters are succeeding because of an analytically-driven team-wide approach centered around pitch tunnels, but both Owings and Ahmed sound as though they’ve bought in.

What gives with Goldy? Squinting at his 50 plate appearances, three things stand out: his swing rate, strikeout rate, and ground-ball rate, all of which are well off his 2017 figures, which are similar enough to his career norms that I’ll skip the extra number-crunching. Through Tuesday, he’s swung at just 34.7%% of pitches, the lowest mark of his career and down from 40.9% last year. Now, swing rate is among the first hitter stats to stabilize, at around the 50 PA point, so this is particularly worth monitoring. Digging a bit deeper into stats for which I can offer far less warranty, Goldschmidt has seen 4.44 pitches per plate appearance (ninth in the NL) and has swung at just 17.7% of pitches outside the zone, down from 24.4% last year; his swing rate in the zone is down relative to 2017 as well (54.4% versus 62.2%). In other words, he’s been very picky.

So far, the approach has brought mixed results. His 22% walk rate is off the charts, while his 26% strikeout rate is higher than any season save for his 48-game stint as a rookie in 2011, and up from 22.1% last year. His swinging-strike rate of 8.1% is actually down from last year’s 10.1% (his highest since 2011), but his first-pitch strike rate is a career high 68%. He’s just 2 for 21 when putting the ball in play under those circumstances, albeit with eight walks; when he falls behind 0-1, his survival tactic has been to grind it out deep into counts.

Finally, Goldschmidt is sporting a 52% ground-ball rate, well above last year’s mark of 46.3%; meanwhile, his 8% line-drive rate is less than half of last year’s 18.8%. Via Statcast, his average exit velocity has dropped from 91.4 mph last year to 89.2 mph this year, his expected wOBA on contact from .401 to .353 (.329 before Tuesday). As to whether the new Chase Field humidor is having an effect, with just four fly balls in his home yard, it’s far too early to judge. But wouldn’t it be irresponsible of us not to at least peek at the numbers for the purposes of meaningless entertainment? Fine, here’s a teensy taste that you have to pinky-swear that you won’t draw any kind of conclusions from: yes, his average fly-ball distance at home has dropped from 362 feet last year (on 48 such flies) and 348 feet from 2015-17 (on 119 such flies) to 314 feet. You didn’t hear that from me, though.

As Goldschmidt’s results in his past two games suggest, his early-season woes will most likely come out in the wash. In this week’s FanGraphs staff conference call, we spent a few lighthearted minutes riffing on early-season statistical weirdness and validity, with one staffer suggesting that we do the equivalent of a pinned tweet to ensure that Mike Trout topped our WAR leaderboard, saying in effect, “Even if he’s not the best at this point in the season, he’s the best.” Indeed, less than two weeks into the season, it’s tough to take any stats seriously when the upper ranks include the likes of Ryan Flaherty (seventh in the NL in WAR through Monday) and Matt Davidson (fourth in the AL in wRC+ to that point) while established studs like Goldschmidt struggle.

Underscoring that point is the fact that Goldschmidt is hardly alone, particularly among the elite NL first basemen. Consider:

The 2018 Struggles of Elite NL First Basemen
Player 2014-17 wRC+ (rk) 2014-17 WAR (rk) 2018 wRC+ (rk) 2018 WAR (rk)
Paul Goldschmidt 148 (2) 21.7 (1) 101 (9) 0.1 (5)
Joey Votto 161 (1) 20.0 (2) 36 (13) -0.1 (12)
Anthony Rizzo 144 (3t) 19.4 (3) 27 (14) -0.3 (14)
All stats through April 10. All ranks are among qualified NL first basemen (3.1 PA/game)

My suggestion to you is to bookmark this page and check back at season’s end for a good chuckle and a reminder not to take these early-season stats seriously, because chances are that all three will be among the NL’s leaders in both categories. But for the moment, their numbers loom large due to their jarring, garish absurdity. If the ever-reliable Paul Goldschmidt has stopped hitting, can we really depend on anything in this world?

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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I’m sure this was written before last night’s game, but I wanted to say great job working in those details from last night. Seamlessly mentioning the caveat of the timing of the stats with an update on recent events. Well done.


Ah, but did he incorporate the bomb Goldy just hit a few minutes ago?