Paul Goldschmidt, Triple Crown winner? An unassuming Cardinals hero demands the baseball world’s attention

Paul Goldschmidt’s tradition is that there is no tradition. It is a career of precision, completeness, inevitability, an excellence that is somehow mediocre. In the midst of a season where Goldschmidt is preparing for his first MVP award, teammates past and present wanted to talk about how efficiently he rounds the bases, how he devised a scientific test to take the edge off the often-superstitious selection process bat. One of them compared him to Tim Duncan. No, Goldschmidt’s delivery would seem absurd and off-topic—like if the toaster oven had a comic book story instead of instructions.

We’re used to the greatness of Goldschmidt’s brand because he’s been doing it for a while, first for the Arizona Diamondbacks and now for the St. Louis Cardinals. Louis Cardinals, the team he seemed born to play for. He has been a fixture near the top of the MLB leaderboards for a decade. Keywords: Near the top, not at the top.

The 2022 season is not so easy to nod and pass. This year, with his 35th birthday fast approaching, he is the best player in the National League. In recent weeks, the story of his best season has transcended the possibility of becoming an MVP winner after five top-six finishes and in a more febrile field: It’s September, and Goldschmidt has a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown.

In retrospect, it’s kind of perfect that Goldschmidt snuck up on such a hallowed hallmark of baseball greatness, but fun fact, purveyors and biographers have problems. A chase as rare as this demands stakes, a narrative arc, a world that unravels around the man with the improbably literal nicknames “Goldy” and “America’s First Baseman.” That’s the challenge. But it is something we should easily accept. Goldschmidt, after all, accepted the challenge of posting the NL’s first Triple Crown season since Joe Medwick in 1937. Some world-building is the least we can do.

(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

Strengths: Paul Goldschmidt thrives in difficult circumstances

Here’s Goldschmidt’s pursuit going into Friday’s action:

  • Batting average: Leads the NL (and MLB) with an impressive .332 mark. His closest competitors are Freddie Freeman (.324) and Jeff McNeil (.315). This is the tooth that seems the safest.

  • Home runs: He’s tied for second here with 33, three behind NL leader Kyle Schwarber’s 36. His 13 homers since the All-Star break lead the NL.

  • Runs Batted In: Goldschmidt is tied for the NL lead with Pete Alonso, with 105. This is obviously a teammate-dependent stat, so it’s worth noting that the Cardinals have boasted the best second-half offense in baseball with good difference. The emergence of (extremely Cardinalsy) contributors like Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan has allowed Goldschmidt to drop to the No. 3 spot in the batting order, which should present more RBI opportunities than he had as a regular No. 2 hitter earlier within the year. .

The only times Goldschmidt led his league in either category was in 2013, when he paced the NL in homers and RBIs with the D-backs. The 36 long balls that earned him black ink that year were the fewest to lead a league since 1992, and there’s a bit of a pattern emerging there.

Goldschmidt looks especially adept at navigating rough offensive waters. With less lively baseball crushing homers and depressing scores, MLB has returned to a run environment last seen between 2013 and 2015, when Goldschmidt reached superstar status and posted career years. Runs per game and home run percentage are back to 2015 levels, but much of the league hasn’t adjusted.

Fewer home runs mean more balls that stay in the yard and end up in play. Pitchers, feeling less vulnerable and hitters intent on swinging for the fences anyway, responded with a more aggressive approach—more pitches in the zone, fewer walks. Through some combination of factors that include roster limits on pitchers and a crackdown on stickies, 2022 has also seen a slight decrease in the long-climbing strikeout rate.

Put all of this together and you end up with a landscape that puts much more weight on how well players do when they put the ball in play. Or a landscape prepared for Goldschmidt’s success.

Among all active hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances, he has the third-best batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. In fact, his hit rate on balls that don’t go over the fence is eighth best since the induction in 1947, just ahead of Mike Trout and a hair behind Derek Jeter.

There is no change to play against Goldschmidt, even if teams have tried. His spray chart against the shift this year is a nearly symmetrical thing of beauty, a visual representation of his corresponding .418/.500/.704 batting line.

Spray chart against the shift in 2022. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Spray chart against displacement in 2022. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

An all-field approach that exercises real muscle but doesn’t sell out for power also gives Goldschmidt some perks, like indefensible doubles on every line.

In a way, Goldschmidt’s metronomic consistency has him ready for this moment, a year where he can hit .332 as his league average sinks to its lowest point since 1968. That was the year after Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, you’ I remember, what seemed like the sport’s last.

The origin story: An 8th-round pick could become the draft’s 1st Triple Crown winner

Before Miguel Cabrera finally managed to capture the first Triple Crown in recent memory for the Detroit Tigers in 2012, the feat seemed like the past generations ago. Perhaps the pitching had become too imposing, the hitting too specialized. Hitting for power and hitting for average seemed to be very much at odds with each other.

This is clearly true in many cases. If Goldschmidt needed to keep up with the behemoth known as Aaron Judge in the AL, he probably couldn’t — and certainly not while hitting .332. But whether you like the current style of play or not, less homer-happy baseball puts more talent on a higher pedestal.

The arc of the baseball universe has long bent toward quantification, but every aspect of the game that is recorded and analyzed adds a new level of complexity to the all-important task of evaluating and getting the best out of players. MLB teams are constantly improving their talent radars, but Goldschmidt avoided many of them to an even more extreme degree than the prime example of the era.

In the 2009 MLB draft, 21 teams passed on Mike Trout before the Angels took him 25th overall. Not only is he the best player from that draft, he’s on track to be one of the best players of all time. However, the second-best player from that draft didn’t come off the board earlier. It was Goldschmidt, taken by Arizona in the eighth round.

If he actually reached the top, Goldschmidt would be the first player ever taken in the MLB draft to win the Triple Crown. Cabrera was an international amateur signee, and the last winners from the previous era — Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson — entered professional baseball before the 1965 draft began.

The star of St.  Louis Cardinals Paul Goldschmidt is threatening a run at the Triple Crown in the National League.  (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The star of St. Louis Cardinals Paul Goldschmidt is threatening a run at the Triple Crown in the National League. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Superhuman feat: Finding the top of the Hall of Fame at age 34

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Goldschmidt’s pursuit is when he does it. Pulling in at age 34, he would be the oldest player to win the Triple Crown.

Even if he falls short in that particular piece of entitlement, his season is thrown into historic company. Using OPS+, which measures offensive season and park performance relative to league average, Goldschmidt has the best season by a player over 34 since Barry Bonds. His 195 OPS+, which means he’s 95% better than the average major league hitter, would be the eighth best among those over 34 since the draft — behind Bonds’ four seasons, Ted Williams’ two seasons and the 70 breakout years of Mark McGwire in 1998.

Always durable, Goldschmidt has only been in the IL once in his career. He’s on pace to play 155 games this year — he missed two games because he was unvaccinated when the Cardinals visited Toronto in July. When his first year in St. Louis after the blockbuster trade from Arizona turned out to be his weakest offensive season, it looked like he might go into decline, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, he’s bolstering a lineup of mid-30s stars that could put him in Hall of Fame consideration alongside slightly older contemporaries like Cabrera and Joey Votto, as estimated by the reliable JAWS system.

If Goldschmidt is one day enshrined, 2022 is estimated to be when he’s moved up to the majors. An MVP award, almost certain at this point, is enough to give him that. But a Triple Crown that transcends convention, expectation and the wider forces of the game? Well, that would be a very good story to cast in bronze.

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