30 Questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

Diamondbacks Paul Goldschmidt: Big-time power or big-time bust?

Youth and power: They're two traits of a baseball player that are quite attractive to the average fantasy baseball owner.

In the case of Paul Goldschmidt, it's not difficult to understand his appeal. He's 24 years old, has averaged one home run per 14.7 at-bats during his professional career and in fact swatted 38 home runs combined between the major and minor leagues last season, sixth most among pros.

At the same time, Goldschmidt whiffed in 29.9 percent of his big league plate appearances last season, and has struck out 24.3 percent of the time as a pro.

We've been spoiled by successful examples of big-time, swing-for-the-fences power prospects in the past half-decade: Mark Reynolds and Mike Stanton finished sixth (37) and ninth (34) in home runs in the majors last season, despite strikeout rates that ranked first (31.6 percent) and third (27.6 percent) among qualified hitters. It's the Reynoldses and Stantons of the baseball world who sometimes fool us into believing that every such prospect will make a quick ascent to fantasy stardom.

The problem, however, is that Reynolds and Stanton -- players who despite their successes possess flaws -- serve to conceal the considerable downside of the all-or-nothing slugger at the onset of his big league career. Such successes are easily recognizable, because they're annual contenders for both home run and strikeout crowns. The failures, meanwhile, tend to flame out in a quick and ugly fashion, never to be heard from again and rarely recalled by fantasy owners in the future.

(A good way to put it: If I said, "Hey, remember Calvin Pickering?" You'd answer: "Oh yeah! What a bust." But would you have remembered his name on your own?)

As with Reynolds or Stanton (or Pickering on the low end), Goldschmidt is a player who, at least for this season, his scheduled first complete year at the major league level, has one of the widest ranges of projections imaginable.

On the high end, he might develop into another Stanton, a player with enough power to make a run at the top 100 overall on the Player Rater.

On the low end, Goldschmidt might find himself batting .125 with twice as many strikeouts as hits at the time the Arizona Diamondbacks finally give up on him and return him to Triple-A at the end of April.

And there is the chance that he might, to take the coward's way out, finish with statistics that split the difference of the two.

Upon closer examination of the numbers, however, there's every reason to fear that low-end, out-and-out-fantasy-bust result. It's for that reason we've projected him conservatively, with a .242 batting average and 24 home runs that appear somewhat ordinary from a first baseman, and ranked him 182nd, or a late-round, corner-infielder pick in a standard ESPN mixed league (or a low-end No. 1 first baseman in an NL-only league). We did it by design, to prepare you for the considerable possibility that he'll wind up a 2012 bust.

Perhaps Jason Grey said it best nearly a year ago on these pages, when in a May 12, 2011, Goldschmidt scouting report he noted: "There are also questions about Goldschmidt's bat speed; as in, some scouts think his swing might be a touch too slow and/or too long to consistently mash major league hurlers. Can he catch up to a good fastball, especially on the inner half of the plate? It's the classic 'heat or cheat' question. Can he hit that good fastball, or does he have to cheat to do so, which then makes him vulnerable to off-speed stuff?"

Grey's words were wise, and they provide a window into why Goldschmidt, despite his monstrous power potential, annually failed to earn healthy, tops-at-his-position prospect rankings earlier in his professional career. Entering the 2010 season, for instance, Goldschmidt failed to crack either Keith Law's top 100 prospects overall, Law's top 10 Diamondbacks prospects or Grey's own top 100 prospects of 2011 for fantasy baseball. Heck, in that Grey profile, Goldschmidt didn't even crack the top 10 prospects … and that was in May, three months before the 6-foot-3, 245-pound masher arrived in the desert.

As expected, Goldschmidt quickly established himself a dead-red fastball hitter with the Diamondbacks the final two months of last season. He recorded .338/.427/.649 triple-slash rates on 89 plate appearances that ended on fastballs, missing on only 25.0 percent of his swings (that compares favorably to his 30.8 percent miss rate overall), and he managed .310/.375/.448 rates when pitchers dialed up their fastball to 93 mph or higher (32 PA-enders). Sure enough, he mashed fastballs on the inner half of the plate, with .417/.500/.875 rates and a 10.6 miss percentage in 28 PAs.

The problem was that Goldschmidt struggled against almost anything else, most especially on off-speed pitches as well as pitches low and outside.

These numbers were ominous:

• He had .147/.224/.294 triple-slash rates (.518 OPS) and a 40.5 miss percentage in 76 PAs ending on an off-speed pitch (changeup, curveball, slider or knuckleball). The major league averages against off-speed pitches in 2011 were a .615 OPS and 29.7 miss percentage.
• He had .190/.289/.342 triple-slash rates (.631 OPS) and a 32.3 miss percentage in 90 PAs ending on a pitch in the lower and outside two-thirds of the strike zone -- meaning pitches deemed "Middle-middle," "Middle-down," "Outside-middle" and "Outside-down" per ESPN's TruMedia tool. The heat map to the right helps serve as a visual representation of this.

The only reasonable conclusion is that, knowing his prior scouting reports, Goldschmidt still shows "heat or cheat" tendencies, and he brings considerable questions to the table regarding his performance against off-speed stuff. This is a slugger still facing his adjustment period at the big league level, and there's every reason to believe that pitchers might recognize these patterns and exploit him with an increasing number of breaking pitches on the outside.

That's not to say he can't make those adjustments, but there's little doubt that he has yet to make those adjustments.

History also isn't on Goldschmidt's side. In the history of baseball, only 21 players have struck out at least 30 percent of the time with an isolated power of .200 or greater through the season in which they lost rookie eligibility; Goldschmidt whiffed only 29.9 percent of the time with .224 isolated power in 156 at-bats. (One fewer plate appearance and he'd have been the 22nd player ever to have gone 30/.200.)

Six of these players played enough the subsequent season to qualify for the batting title, and only four of those improved both their contact rate and isolated power as sophomores: Rob Deer (1985-86), Pete Incaviglia (1986-87), Bo Jackson (1987-88) and the aforementioned Stanton (2010-11). Two of the 21, Ralph Bryant and Jason Dubois, didn't play another year. Six others couldn't even muster 100 plate appearances the following season, a group that included the immortal Sam Horn, Luis Medina, Josh Fields and Brad Eldred.

And among recent such examples who, at least to this stage of their careers, have been fantasy busts are Pedro Alvarez, Kyle Blanks and Dallas McPherson.

Alvarez might be the wisest "basement" comparable to Goldschmidt in 2012: The two share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, specifically their performance against fastballs comparative to off-speed stuff. Alvarez has .296/.386/.470 lifetime rates versus fastballs, but .170/.225/.330 lifetime numbers versus off-speed stuff, and we all know how ugly his 2011 sophomore season was. Keep in mind, too, that Alvarez was a more highly regarded prospect at the time of his big league debut than Goldschmidt.

The Diamondbacks did well to protect themselves this winter by re-signing Lyle Overbay as an effective insurance policy against a Goldschmidt collapse, and fantasy owners who plan to draft the youngster should follow suit with a contingency plan of their own.

There will come a point in your draft at which Goldschmidt's immense power potential warrants selection -- he was my 18th-round pick in Monday's standard mixed league mock, though he was primarily selected because I decided to punt batting average -- but be forewarned that selecting him too early might leave you with nothing of value from that spot.

How lucky are you feelin'?

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.