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

The lore of Paul Goldschmidt is that there is no lore. His is a career of precision, well-roundedness, inevitability, an excellence that is somehow modest. In the middle of a season where Goldschmidt is barreling toward his first MVP award, teammates past and present wanted to talk about how efficiently he rounds the bases, about how he devised a scientific test to dispense with the often superstitious process of choosing a bat. One of them compared him to Tim Duncan. No, Goldschmidt lore would seem absurd and beside the point — like if your toaster oven came with a comic book backstory instead of instructions.

We’ve gotten used to Goldschmidt’s store brand greatness because he’s been doing it for a while, first for the Arizona Diamondbacks and now for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he was seemingly born to play for. He’s been a staple near the top of MLB leaderboards for a decade. Key words: Near the top, not on top.

His 2022 season isn’t nearly as easy to nod at and pass by. This year, with his 35th birthday rapidly approaching, he’s the best hitter in the National League. In recent weeks, the story of his best season has whistled right past the possibility of becoming an MVP winner after five top-six finishes and taken on a more feverish pitch: 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 the fun fact purveyors and biographers are in trouble nonetheless. A chase as rare as this demands stakes, a narrative arc, a world that resolves around the man with the impossibly literal nicknames “Goldy” and “America’s First Baseman.” That is the challenge. But it’s one we should readily accept. Goldschmidt has, 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)
(Moe Haidar / Yahoo Sports)

The powers: Paul Goldschmidt thrives in difficult conditions

Here’s where Goldschmidt’s pursuit stands entering Friday’s action:

The only times Goldschmidt has led his league in any of the categories 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 little bit of a pattern emerging there.

Goldschmidt seems especially capable of navigating difficult offensive waters. With a less lively baseball tamping down homers and depressing scoring, MLB has reverted to a run environment last seen in the years between 2013 and 2015, when Goldschmidt reached superstar status and posted what had been his career years. Runs per game and the home run rate are back to 2015 levels, but much of the league hasn’t adjusted.

Fewer home runs means more balls that stay in the yard and end up in play. Pitchers, sensing less vulnerability and hitters intent on swinging for the fences anyway, have 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 sticky substances, 2022 has also seen a slight decrease in the long-climbing strikeout rate.

Put all that together and you wind up with a landscape that puts far more weight on how well hitters fare when they put the ball in play. Or a landscape primed 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 rate of success on batted balls that don’t go over the fence is eighth-best since integration in 1947, a smidge ahead of Mike Trout and a hair behind Derek Jeter.

There’s no shift 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 the corresponding .418/.500/.704 batting line.

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

An all-fields approach that wields real muscle but doesn’t sell out for power also gifts Goldschmidt some perks, like indefensible doubles down either line.

In some sense, Goldschmidt’s metronomic consistency just kept him ready for this moment, for a year where he can bat .332 as the league average sinks to its lowest point since 1968. That was the year after Carl Yastrzemski won his Triple Crown, you’ll recall, the one that looked as though it might be the sport’s last.

The origin story: An 8th-round pick could become 1st drafted Triple Crown winner

Before Miguel Cabrera finally broke through and won the first Triple Crown in recent memory for the Detroit Tigers in 2012, the feat looked like a bygone of previous generations. Perhaps pitching had become too imposing, hitting too specialized. Hitting for power and hitting for average appeared to be too at odds with one another.

That clearly remains true in a lot of cases. If Goldschmidt needed to keep up with the colossus known as Aaron Judge in the AL, he probably wouldn’t be able to — and surely not while batting .332. But whether you like or dislike the current style of play, a less homer-happy baseball puts more nuanced talents on a higher pedestal.

The arc of the baseball universe has long bent toward quantification, but every facet of the game catalogued and dissected, adds a new layer of complexity to the all-important task of evaluating and getting the best out of players. MLB teams are constantly fine-tuning their talent radars, but Goldschmidt unsurprisingly evaded a great many of them to an even more extreme degree than the era’s prime example.

In the 2009 MLB draft, 21 teams passed on Mike Trout before the Angels took him 25th overall. He’s not only the best player from that draft, but on track to be one of the best players of all time. The second-best player from that draft didn’t go off the board earlier, though. It was Goldschmidt, who Arizona took in the eighth round.

If he were to actually reach the summit, 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 of the previous era — Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson — entered professional baseball before the inception of the draft in 1965.

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

The superhuman feat: Finding a Hall of Fame peak at age 34

Maybe the most remarkable bit of Goldschmidt’s pursuit is when he’s doing it. Raking in his age-34 season, he would be the oldest hitter to win the Triple Crown.

Even if he falls short of that particular bit of royalty, his season is flying into historic company. Using OPS+, which measures offensive era- and park-adjusted performance against league average, Goldschmidt is having the best season by a hitter over 34 since Barry Bonds. His 195 OPS+, meaning he’s 95% better than the average major-league hitter, would be the eighth-best among those over-34 sluggers since integration — behind four Bonds seasons, two Ted Williams seasons and Mark McGwire’s 70-homer outburst in 1998.

Always durable, Goldschmidt has only been on 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 seemed he might slip into a decline, but that has not come to pass.

Instead, he is ramping up a mid-30s run of stardom that could put him squarely in consideration for the Hall of Fame alongside slightly older contemporaries like Cabrera and Joey Votto, by the estimation of the trusty JAWS system.

If Goldschmidt is one day enshrined, 2022 figures to be the moment he ascended into the class of the greats. An MVP award, almost a sure thing at this point, is plenty to afford him that. But a Triple Crown that beats back at convention, expectation and the broader forces of the game? Well, that would be quite the story to chisel in bronze.