At the heart of the Cardinals’ lineup, Paul Goldschmidt hasn’t been nearly good enough

“I hadn’t even thought about it,” St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said on April 8 when asked if he was concerned that the team could start pressing to shake a season-opening offensive slump. “I had no idea if we were doing good or bad.”

If Goldschmidt is to be taken at his word as he deserves to be, and if the general air currents of the intervening 10 days haven’t pointed him in the right direction, then it is probably time that he’s made aware of reality: he’s doing bad, and it is problem for the Cardinals’ offense.

Seventy-five plate appearances into his 14th MLB season, Goldschmidt has one single extra-base hit: a solo home run on Opening Day, three weeks ago. He has just eight walks to pair with 21 strikeouts, and his on base percentage is 54 points higher than his slugging percentage.

Slumps happen and bad batted ball luck can create negative short term static for even the noisiest hitters, but if anything, Goldschmidt’s batted ball data tells an even more bleak story.

According to data gathered by MLB’s Baseball Savant, Goldschmidt is in just the 10th percentile in the league in hard hit percentage, meaning, on average, nine players out of 10 across Major League Baseball are making superior contact.

This follows a spring training in which he went just 6-for-47 with 20 strikeouts, good for a .478 OPS. That spring, in turn, followed a 2023 season which saw Goldschmidt post the lowest OPS of his career in a full season, “bested” only by his 2011 rookie campaign in which he played only 48 games.

When Goldschmidt traveled to Driveline Baseball’s facility outside of Seattle this winter, he did so with a focus on generating additional bat speed to bring back some of the power he felt lagging against fastballs in 2023.

Indeed, his year-over-year slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs dropped more than 100 points from his MVP-winning 2022 campaign, though his expected slugging percentage in the same category actually increased nearly 50 points over the same timeframe. His hard hit percentage jumped from 49.6% in 2022 to 57.7% in 2023. His expected batting average and expected weighted on base average also jumped.

Put simply, his quality of contact against fastballs was actually somewhat better last year than in his MVP year, but fewer balls dropped for hits, creating the image of a hitter who might have had a harder time keeping up.

The glaring issue comes when considering the data against sliders, even as his percentage of sliders seen has dropped about 2% per year since 2022. As with fastballs, there are countless ways to slice and dice the data to demonstrate the challenges involved, but the simplest story told resides in the pitch log.

Over the first 60 sliders thrown to Goldschmidt in 2024, not one was turned back around for a base hit. Only five were put in play, and two of those resulted in a double play, though one was a hard line drive to third base in Arizona which saw Masyn Winn unwisely doubled off of second base.

That line drive double play featured an exit velocity of 98.2 miles per hour, the only batted ball of Goldschmidt’s against a slider – foul balls included – to top 94. Pitching in the majors is never as simple as dropping the same pitch into the same spot repeatedly until a hitter does something with it, but given the results turned in so far in 2024, it would not be a surprise to see those percentages continue to climb until Goldschmidt is able to reverse the trend.

Hitters make adjustments and Goldschmidt is more proactive and cerebral than most, possessing an almost intuitive knowledge of his own swing while being willing to seek outside assistance when appropriate. Indeed, his long-standing close relationship with hitting coach Turner Ward works to his and the team’s benefit here, as that more-than-a-decade long knowledge base should provide ample opportunity for stress testing.

The last important number, however, is two – as in second in the batting order, from which Goldschmidt has hit in every one of his appearances. Modern lineup construction focuses on that spot as ideal for a team’s best hitter, maximizing his plate appearances while providing a decent chance of driving in runs throughout the game.

The Cardinals, though, find themselves receiving pitcher-level production from Michael Siani and Victor Scott II in center field, hitting ninth. Nolan Arenado’s own season-opening slump rivaled Goldschmidt’s until the road trip to Arizona and Oakland, where he has clawed back to production and respectability. Jordan Walker has also struggled in the early going, but he’s in his second big league season and hasn’t yet turned 22. Some growing pains were expected, and the Cardinals are willing to endure them.

Goldschmidt, who turns 37 in September, is grown.

He is, by design, the unshakeable foundation at the heart of the St. Louis offense, and with Arenado, one of the two pillars upon whom the entire foundation rests. He has to go for the team to go.

In its opening weeks, 2024 is a marked improvement over 2023 for the Cardinals in most of the ways that matter and are measurable. Goldschmidt’s offensive production is a glaring exception, drastically in need of being prevented from spinning out of control.