Paul Goldschmidt Is on Fire, and Underrated

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched any baseball highlights recently, you’ve probably seen a familiar face lashing line drives. Paul Goldschmidt has a 22-game hitting streak and 28 extra-base hits on the year, which makes him a regular in game recaps. That frequent loud contact has produced one of those hitting lines that makes it clear that we’re still early in the season: .352/.422/.626 screams “small sample!” as loudly as Dan Szymborski does every April.

Sure, that’s true. I don’t think that Goldschmidt is going to post a .402 BABIP on the season. I don’t think that he’s going to keep hitting homers on 18% of his fly balls while also hitting fly balls more frequently than he ever has, or posting a pristine strikeout rate while chasing more often than league average. But again, he’s hitting .352/.422/.626. He has plenty of space to cool off while still being red hot, so let’s look at how he’s setting himself up to succeed.

Want to hit a home run? Step one is to swing at a good pitch. Goldschmidt has done exactly that this year; the location and type of the pitches he’s hit for home runs look like a hitting textbook:

Hanging sliders, sinkers that don’t sink, and four-seamers all over the place? That’s how they teach it to you in slugger school.

When he makes contact, he’s pulling the ball more than ever. Eight of his 11 home runs have been pulled, with another two going to straightaway center. The lone exception? It was on that four-seam fastball away that you can see up above. Goldschmidt is, after all, still an excellent hitter, with enough power to hit the ball where it’s pitched. He’s simply picking inside and middle pitches and pulling them into the stands.

He’s never pulled a higher proportion of his balls in the air, and he’s doing it through changing his swing decisions. Take a look at the proportion of his swings that have been on inside pitches; more specifically, on pitches closer to the right-handed batter’s box than the dead middle of the plate:

% of Swings Taken on Inside Pitches
Year Swing%
2011 42.1%
2012 49.5%
2013 46.2%
2014 50.1%
2015 49.8%
2016 47.8%
2017 43.5%
2018 47.3%
2019 49.0%
2020 52.6%
2021 48.8%
2022 56.2%

That’s just a smart way of hitting. If you want to maximize your power, as Goldschmidt clearly does, just find more pitches to pull.

But wait! Goldschmidt has never seen more inside pitches than he’s seeing this year, which makes it a lot easier to swing at inside pitches. He’s swinging at a high rate – 54% – but it’s not the highest of his career. He’s simply taking what pitchers are giving him, and right now, that’s a bundle of smashable pitches.

By doing that, Goldschmidt is furthering a renaissance that I think many people have missed. He’s a victim of our overzealous pattern-matching brains; Goldschmidt’s first year with the Cardinals, 2019, was his worst since ’12, and that was his age 31 season. Worst season at age 31? I know where that normally ends up.

Only, it didn’t. Goldschmidt came back with a vengeance in 2020, posting a 147 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR in only 58 games. It didn’t get much attention, because 2020 was, well, 2020. Then he backed that up with an excellent 2021, with 31 homers and 5 WAR. Again, he was overshadowed, this time by the arrival of Nolan Arenado in St. Louis. This year, he’s simply been too hot to ignore; his 194 wRC+ is fourth in baseball, behind only Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, and José Ramírez.

Who’s been the best first baseman in the game since the start of the 2020 season? If you said Freddie Freeman, you’re right – but just barely. He and Goldschmidt are in an effective tie for first, miles ahead of the competition:

Best First Basemen, 2020-22
Player WAR wRC+ PA
Freddie Freeman 10.2 149 1172
Paul Goldschmidt 10.0 150 1117
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 7.2 147 1132
Matt Olson 6.4 133 1133
José Abreu 6.3 133 1110

Vlad is exciting. Olson is a hot commodity playing in his hometown. Goldschmidt? He’s just chugging along, swatting homers and playing his usual good defense. His skills – solid walk rate, solid strikeout rate, high BABIP, plus power on contact, plus baserunning – don’t jump off the page. He’s better than average at almost everything, but the best at nothing. He doesn’t lead all first basemen in homers, or RBI, or runs. He doesn’t lead them in batting average, OBP, or slugging percentage. But he’s in the running in every category, with no real weakness in his game, and that’s enough to lap the non-Freeman field.

So can Goldschmidt keep chugging along, producing league-best numbers with minimal hype? If he does, it’ll be on the back of continuing to lift and pull inside pitches, because I foresee increased strikeouts in his future. While his strikeout and walk numbers look just fine this year, there’s some worrisome data under the hood.

For pretty much every batter, the best way to hit for power is to swing at pitches over the heart of the plate. Goldschmidt has never swung less frequently there than he has this year, with the exception of his brief 2011 cup of coffee.

Is he just swinging less overall? Not exactly! The opposite of the heart of the plate is the chase and waste zones, as defined by Baseball Savant. That includes pitches that are off the plate, and not near the edges – sure balls that batters swing at only when they’re fooled. Again with the exception of a cup of coffee in 2011, Goldschmidt has never swung more frequently at those pitches than he has this year. From a swing decision perspective, he’s doing exactly the wrong thing and prospering.

That might sound like bad news, and well, it kind of is. I don’t care who you are; swinging less often at pitches in the middle of the plate and more often at pitches that would otherwise be sure balls is a bad plan of attack.

If you think about it long enough, though, you can convince yourself that this might actually be a good thing. Goldschmidt has made some bad decisions – and his newfound pull power still has him mashing. His barrel rate hasn’t declined, his hard-hit rate is roughly in line with what it’s been for the past few years, and he’s elevating the ball as well as he ever has. In fact, most of the poor plate discipline numbers stem from a rough patch early in the season, as you can clearly see on a chart:

Early in the season, he had some chase issues. In straightening that out, he swung much less at everything, which tanked his swing rate on in-zone pitches. But now he seems to have righted both ships, swinging as frequently at good pitches as he used to while mostly laying off bad ones. I don’t think he’s likely to maintain his current form; hiccups like that will happen from time to time, and it’s fair to say that Goldschmidt’s overall plate discipline has declined since last year. But the full-season numbers make him look worse at distinguishing balls from strikes than he’s showing right now, and again, his full-season numbers are pretty good as it is.

Was he this kind of a hitter all season, with the weird blip higher in chase rate early in the season simply an aberration? Did he make changes to fix his game after a rough start that saw him below average with the bat as late as April 27? I couldn’t tell you which it is, but his plate discipline of old has returned while pitchers have continued to pitch him inside. The result? He’s been the hottest hitter in baseball since the start of May, and if he continues to show the same solid approach at the plate the rest of the year, he’ll have another superlative season to show for it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Ben – I’m so happy that you finally got to write this article. Goldschmidt’s underappreciation has lasted for sooooo long.

1 year ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

The part of Goldschmidt’s superb all-around game that has fascinated me the most is his stolen base success rate. 143/33 is outstanding for anyone but 33 year old 1st basemen who are very large human beings are not supposed to steal 12 of 12 as he did last year. Four time Gold Glove , Four time Silver Slugger, the best baserunner among 1st basemen and the Gold Standard for consistency. He is one of the leading candidates for most underrated players in the game.

Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

He’s this generation’s Bagwell, pre-shoulder injury.

1 year ago

I never thought of Bagwell as the anything of his generation. Bagwell is an interesting player in that he is a legit HOFer, but never close to the best 1B of his era. Frank Thomas spins circles around him. If all of the PED players were in the HOF, then Bagwell would be fringy. There were more great offensive players in that era than any other era. I always will wonder about everyone from that era as being a PED guy and that includes Bagwell. His career certainly fits that model. I know that is not fair and I am not trying to allege anything. I don’t care about PEDs because it never will be fair. I have zero doubt that many people got away with it. It was a federal investigation that singled out specific players, otherwise they would have gotten away with it too. It just isn’t a fair period of history. I think it is fair to say that the Big Hurt was way ahead of him in the 90s and in the late 90s and early 00s there were a ton of elite 1B ranging from Giambi to Big Mac. Palmeiro beats him in counting stats. He was often in the Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton tier. There were a bunch of other guys that were better from year to year. Not to mention that there were players playing all over the field that could mash in that era. I don’t think Bagwell was the anything of his generation. That was the peak of MLB baseball and it is a fun era to analyze. It is a harsh reality for this era to acknowledge. It is kind of funny that MLB started its own decline by conducting a witch hunt on its own players. MLB has been destroying itself ever since!

Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

As usual, you’re full of it; however, this time you completely managed to miss what was actually said in your rush to troll. Well done.

1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

He is smart and not selfish. Lots of players have fit this model throughout history and they all deserve respect for it. Constrast that with a Harper or Bellinger type that steals bases when they are not hitting well to try to create some stats.