After batting practice before a recent game in St. Louis, Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was picking up balls from the infield when he spotted a small boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, watching him intently. The boy didn't yell for the ball or beg for an autograph. But when one ball rolled onto the dirt warning track between home plate and third base, Goldschmidt walked over and handed it to the boy. The kid beamed.
As Goldschmidt paused to take a photo with the boy and his family, another fan approached to tell him how he loves watching him play, then added, “I told my boys to watch your swing.”
Goldschmidt, now in his fifth year in the majors, is off to another stellar season, and more and more people are taking notice of his swing. Earlier this week, the 27-year-old surged into the lead in All-Star balloting among National League first basemen, overtaking Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Adrian Gonzalez. Then, on Wednesday, Goldschmidt belted his 100th career home run -- and 17th of the season, putting him among the National League leaders.
“He’s arguably the best player in the game,” said former teammate Mark Trumbo. "He’s well on his way to another MVP season."
What isn’t arguable is that Goldschmidt -- the 2013 NL MVP runner-up -- has a slash line through 60 games this season that is MVP-caliber: .352/.472/.662. His 4.1 WAR is second-best in the majors. In addition to homers, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, Goldschmidt also leads all first basemen in RBIs (49), runs scored (46) and OPS (1.134).
Goldschmidt, a two-time All-Star who also has a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award on his résumé, might not have the name recognition of Pujols or Trout just yet. But the All-Star vote shows that fans outside of Arizona are starting to warm to this self-deprecating superstar.
An unheralded eighth-round choice out of Texas State in 2009 (the 249th overall selection), he is not outspoken and doesn’t always make flashy plays. “Paul Goldschmidt is just a humble person,” said Diamondbacks hitting coach Turner Ward, who also managed Goldschmidt with the Double-A Mobile (Alabama) BayBears in 2011.
“Goldy,” as he’s known to his teammates, simply lets his bat tell his story.
It has told quite a tale so far. Only five active players have a batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage equal or better than Goldschmidt’s (.299/.392/.539) during their first four seasons: Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Joey Votto and Trout. Since 1901, only 18 MLB players with 2,000 or more plate appearances have hit better than .298/.391/.539 over their first five seasons. Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Frank Thomas are a few of the names on that list.
Trumbo says Goldschmidt's work ethic is the secret to his success. “He’s the most prepared player in the game,” Trumbo said. “His preparation is what separates him from the pack."
So does his strike-zone discipline.
“As good as he is at hitting different pitches, he makes pitchers throw the ball in the zone,” Hale said. “Very few times does he go out of the zone. So he’ll get into good counts because pitchers are trying to throw pitches that are off the plate to get him to swing.”
“Usually hitters have some spot that is sort of their tough spot to reach, he but he can cover almost any pitch,” said Hall. “He can hit breaking balls, he can hit changeups, he can hit high pitches, low pitches, balls away or balls in.”
Goldschmidt’s approach at the plate is simple. Even though his milestone homer this week made him one of only six players to hit 100 home runs with the Diamondbacks, he doesn’t have a power hitter’s mentality. “I just try to have a good at-bat in the simplest terms. I'm just trying to find a way to get on base,” he said. “If the ball gets in the air at the right angle, it’s going to get out of the ballpark. But I’m not trying to lift the ball. I just try to hit the ball hard and think, ‘Line drive.’”
Given his plate discipline and that he doesn't have much protection in the lineup, Goldschmidt leads the major leagues in on-base percentage (.473) and intentional walks (15) -- more than double Harper’s second-best total of seven. Goldschmidt has been walked four times in a game three times this season.
What makes Goldschmidt a complete hitter who can both get on base and hit for power, said Ward, is his compact swing. “He is able to use all parts of the field because his swing is short, compact," Ward said. “It has a good path, so it allows him to use more of the field.”
The ability to recognize and make those adjustments -- and his unparalleled ability to hit to the opposite field -- has helped Goldschmidt become perhaps the league’s toughest out.
Goldschmidt is the only player in the league this season to have an OPS of 1.134 or higher, a slugging percentage of .665 or higher and nine or more stolen bases.
But he still sees room to improve. Goldschmidt said that even when things are going well, he still makes small hitting adjustments every day. Rather than watching video of his swing or his mechanics, he relies on Ward and assistant hitting coach Mark Grace.
“Goldy really wants to be better with two strikes, better with runners in scoring position, better leading off the inning,” Ward said. “He doesn’t have too much pride to come to me, or any of the other coaches, and say: ‘Hey, what do you see? What do I need to do to get better?’
“He’s got a very simple swing,” Ward said. “When something is off mechanically, he’s able to even fight it off to get back to the mental part of the game, and going out there and competing. That’s the difference with him. He is really in tune with the mental part [of hitting], and his approach to how he hits, and what he is looking to hit, and being stubborn enough to stay with it and do it.”
Once he talks with his coaches, Goldschmidt will get the feel for what he needs to work on that day in the batting cage.
“Maybe you are pulling off the ball and maybe you need to stay on it a little bit more,” Goldschmidt added. “If you are out in front, slowing it down. Or, sometimes, you are behind. Just trying to get back where you are feeling good and mechanically sound.”
It’s safe to say he’s feeling good and sound these days.
“He just does everything for this team,” said Hale. “People around the league know about him now. He’s becoming one of those guys, and hopefully now he’ll be recognized for it.”