A reader recently asked me to do a Prospect Retrospective for Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. As you know, Goldschmidt is having an outstanding season so far in 2013, hitting .329/.408/.622 through 45 games, with 12 homers, 36 RBI, and a 174 wRC+. His WAR currently stands at 2.2, which ranks as fourth-overall in the National League. Goldy was something of a controversial prospect a couple of years ago, so let's take a look at his development path.
Goldschmidt was drafted in the eighth round in 2009 from Texas State University, where he holds the school record for career home runs. He was quite successful in college, hitting .352/.487/.685 as a junior with 18 homers and 54 walks against 29 strikeouts in 219 at-bats.His power was respected by scouts, but they worried about his 6-3, 245 pound body. Some felt he would strike out too much against pro pitching, plus right-handed hitting first baseman have to really impress scouts to rank highly on draft day. He signed for $95,000 as an eighth-round pick by Arizona.
He murdered pitching in the Pioneer League (.334/.408/.638), but skeptics pointed out that the Pioneer League is a great place to hit. Many college sluggers have performed well there but failed to repeat at higher levels. I noted his impressive performance in the 2010 Baseball Prospect Book, but went with a cautious Grade C pending some exposure to better pitching, having been burned by gaudy rookie ball numbers from college hitters before.
Moved up to the High-A California League in '10, he responded with a .314/.384/.606 mark, with 35 homers and 57 walks, for Visalia. However, doubters pointed out that he struck out 161 times in 525 at-bats, a very high ratio, and some scouts weren't convinced he could handle advanced pitching in a less-friendly environment. There were still some grumbles about his defense.
I raised his rating to a Grade B- in the 2011 book. I felt that the contact issue would likely harm his batting average and OBP against better pitching and that Double-A would seriously test him, but also wrote that "even as a low batting average with power guy, he should still have value."
Such fears were unnecessary. Goldschmidt had no problems adapting to Double-A, hitting .306/.435/.626 with 30 homers, 82 walks, and 92 strikeouts in 457 plate appearances over 103 games for Mobile in the Southern League in 2011. He still struck out quite a bit, but not as much, his whiff rate dropping to 20% compared to 27% in '10. His walk rate took a large spike upward, he maintained a good batting average, and scouting reports about his ability to handle breaking pitches as well as inside fastballs were positive.
Promoted to the majors for the stretch run, he hit .250/.333/.474 in 177 plate appearances with a 117 OPS+. In 2012 he took over as the full-time first baseman with a .286/.359/.490 line in 587 PA, with 43 doubles, 20 homers, 60 walks and 139 strikeouts. He even stole 18 bases in 21 attempts, and his defense has turned out to be better than expected.
Overall, through 238 major league games Goldschmidt has a .288/.364/.513 line. He currently leads the National League in SLG, OPS, and OPS+, and at age 25 he is just entering his peak seasons.
So what happened here?
It was never a matter of performance for Goldschmidt: he mashed in college and mashed in the low minors. His power and strength were never doubted. However, his strikeout rates were a caution flag from both a sabermetric and scouting perspective, and many hitters with similar profiles have failed to adapt at higher levels.
I don't think even the most optimistic observers saw Goldschmidt as a potential .280-.300 hitter; even people who liked him saw him more as a .250-.260 guy, albeit one who would produce power. That was my take on him, and even that proved to be an underestimate of his ability.
By all accounts, Goldschmidt has worked very hard to improve his defense and mobility through better conditioning. Although his height/weight data is the same as when he entered pro ball, he's in notably better physical condition compared to his college days. His baseball instincts are sound, and he's even turned into an efficient stealer (26 for 30 in his big league career) despite his size and lack of plus running speed.
What separated Goldschmidt was his ability to adapt and remedy his weaknesses, even as he faced better and better competition. Figuring out which players will do that and which won't involves the intersection of player tools/talent, baseball skills, and human/makeup factors. . .that's what scouting is all about. Goldschmidt is a good example of how much we still have to learn.