Bernie’s Offseason Audit: Next Batter Up, First Baseman Paul Goldschmidt

Greetings. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones.

We’re almost there, right?

Welcome to another edition of my offseason series, The Audit. I’m taking a look back at relevant members of the 2019 Cardinals — and peering ahead to 2020.

Just a friendly reminder: for offense, when I cite wRC+ — aka park-adjusted runs created — a mark of 100 is the league average. And the same applies to OPS+ … 100 is average. The more that a hitter goes above 100 in either of these metrics, the better he is. A wRC+ of 150 means that a hitter is 50 percent better than a league-average hitter. An 85 wRC+ means the hitter is 15 percent below average.

Today: First baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

The Overview: the Cardinals made a big splash last offseason, sending a package of three young players (including catcher Carson Kelly) to Arizona for the acclaimed and accomplished Goldy, who rates among the most highly respected players in the majors. Goldschmidt, entering his free-agent season, gave up a chance to go to the market by agreeing to a five-year, $130 million deal that goes into effect in 2020. It wasn’t an easy transition for Goldschmidt, who put up low numbers (by his standards) early in the 2019 season. But he did settle in, find his comfort zone and his performance improved. He did finish with 34 homersm 97 runs batted in, and 97 runs scored. Not exactly a famine. But … yes. Overall a disappointment.

My upfront view: I’m definitely in the minority here. Though acknowledging that his stats were down in some key areas — and I’m not dismissing that at all –I was pleased with Goldschmidt’s season. Why? Because of what he did with the bat starting in July. And because of his Statcast data, which if anything should be a source of reassurance. I’ll get into all of this if you read on.

The Bad: There are plenty of reasons for concern, sure. Goldschmidt’s 2.9 WAR was the lowest of his career in a full season, a stretch of that began in 2012. In his previous six seasons (2013-2018) Goldschmidt averaged 5.48 Wins Above Replacement per year. So that’s quite a drop.

Moreover, Goldy’s 116 wRC+ was his worst in a full season. From 2012 through 2018 he’d posted an average 146 wRC+. So when you go from 46 percent above the league average offensively to 16 percent … that’s noticeable.

Goldschmidt’s 2019 slugging percentage (.476) was down from his .534 slug over the previous seven years. His onbase percentage (.346) was down from his .400 OBP over the previous seven years. Accordingly his .821 OPS in 2019 represented a significant dive from his .934 OPS from 2012 through ‘18.

The Good: He came on after a stressful start to the season. And it was certainly an anxiety-generating beginning to the season, with Goldy batting .246 with a .336 OBP and weak .405 slugging percentage through the end of June. He had only 31 RBIs over the first three months, but that was more about a scarcity of opportunities. Overall Goldy was a tick below average offensively (99 wRC+) during the first three months.

However …

In 330 plate appearances from the start of July through the end of the regular season, Goldschmidt batted .274 with a .356 OBP and a robust slugging percentage of .552. That adds up to a .908 OPS. He also slammed 20 homers and 16 doubles, drove in 66 runs, and came in at 34 percent above league average offensively with a 134 wRC+.

From the end of June until the end of the regular season — among MLB first basemen with at least 250 plate appearances — Goldschmidt ranked first in slugging and RBIs and was tied for second in homers. Only two first basemen — the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo and Oakland’s Matt Olson — had a higher wRC+ than Goldschmidt during the final three months.

Goldy was a formidable presence in September, when the Cardinals made their push to the NL Central title. He homered five times, knocked in 24 runs, had a .405 OBP and slugged .548 with a 148 wRC+.

Defense and Base-Running: Goldschmidt played an influential role in the Cardinals’ excellent run-prevention performance by deftly handling throws and making plays at his position. He ranked fifth among MLB first basemen in 2019 with four defensive runs saved. He was tied for the MLB lead at the position for most double plays started at the position, ranked second at converting ground balls into outs — and turned 90 percent of the bunts fielded into outs.

As for his base running, there’s some discrepancy among metric systems. Baseball Prospectus rated Goldy as slightly below average. But Bill James Online credited Goldschmidt with a +18 base-running gain.

Reasons for optimism…

1. His hard-hit rate (42.4%) was slightly down from his career standard. But that rate still ranked in the top 28 percent of MLB hitters.

2. Goldy’s average exit velocity (90.1 mph) was just a tick below his normal range. But he ranked among the top 30 percent of MLB hitters in exit velo.

3. Based on the quality of contact, Goldschmidt had an expected slugging percentage of .513. Meaning that he was the victim of some unfortunate batted-ball luck.

4. About that bad luck: Last season Goldschmidt had a .789 slugging percentage on line drives in play. The MLB-wide average for line drives in play was .916. Coming into 2019, Goldschmidt’s career slug on line drives in play was .973. He hit the ball hard but didn’t receive the appropriate results. And that’s a legit reason to expect a bounce-back in 2020.

5. Goldy had weak numbers — the basic stuff — against offspeed pitches in 2019. It was, perhaps, his most noticeable vulnerable spot. But even that is deceiving; based on the statcast data his batting average on offspeed pitches was 48 points lower than it should have been based on the quality of contact. The same applies to his slugging percentage on breaking balls (.388), which should have been .479 based on contact quality.

6. Goldy had some bad habits in 2019; his “chase” rate on balls out of the strike zone was 31.4 percent. He had an overly aggressive approach at times. But it’s also true that his strikeout rate dropped from 25.6% over the first three months to 23% during the final three months. He surely seems to have the intelligence and discipline to cut down on the out-of-zone chasing.

7. Goldschmidt should be more comfortable and aligned with batting coach Jeff Albert in their second season of working together. And Goldy respects Albert. But as was the case for many Cardinals, Goldy went through a learning curve in 2019. He’s enthusiastic about Albert’s work.

I’m not trying to suggest that Goldschmidt’s numbers will be stout from 2020 through the end of his contract, which expires after the 2024 season. But there are enough positive indicators and trends that lead me to believe he’ll pack plenty of wallop in 2020. After that, we’ll take a look at it on a year-by-year basis.

Thanks for reading …