There's no single easy explanation for Paul Goldschmidt's emergence in 2013 as the most dangerous hitter on the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a viable contender, along with Cincinnait's Joey Votto, for the best first baseman in the National League.
Goldschmidt is 25, and in his third major league season. He more than held his own as a midseason callup in 2011, posting an OPS+ of 117 in 177 plate appearances. He increased that to 125 in 2012, a full season, while hitting 20 home runs.
But 2013 has been an entirely different kind of season. He has 20 home runs already, in half the season. The OPS+ is 153, just behind Votto's 155. But he's not hitting more line drives, or even more fly balls. He isn't walking a lot more, 11.4 percent of the time up from 10.2 percent in 2012, nor striking out dramatically less, 21 percent down from 22.1 percent.
"You try to get better, obviously, with experience," Goldschmidt told me in front of his locker at Citi Field prior to Tuesday night's Diamondbacks-Mets game. "You're always learning stuff and trying to get better. But I didn't go into the offseason and say, 'Well, I need to move my hands down', and all of the sudden that made a huge change. My swing really hasn't changed much from high-A."
The only dramatic manifestation of Goldschmidt's improvement, in terms of outcome, has been a larger percentage of his fly balls leaving the ballpark, 25 percent in 2013 after 14.2 percent in 2012. But what process is leading to that outcome? Is Goldschmidt stronger? Is he getting better pitches to hit? Is he recognizing pitches more quickly, and thus driving more of them? Is he just a hard-working hitter entering his prime, minimizing slumps and extending hot streaks?
The answer, according to Goldschmidt and those who know him best, is: Yes.
Turner Ward is now the assistant hitting coach for the Diamondbacks. But back in 2011, he was the manager of the Mobile Bay Bears, and his first baseman, Goldschmidt, crushed Southern League pitching to the tune of 30 home runs and a 1.061 OPS. So Ward's been with Goldschmidt for his biggest successes, and isn't a bit surprised that he's found a way to hit major league pitching almost as well.
"He's always had a good swing, since Double-A," Ward said of Goldschmidt right in front of the Diamondbacks' clubhouse entrance Wednesday afternoon, just after completing his pregame work on batting practice. "You knew the power was there, that was easy to see. And now it's just the point of him learning to cover more areas, and that's what he's doing."
There are a pair of ways Goldschmidt believes he's able to cover more of the plate: pitch recognition, and getting into better counts.
On the former, Goldschmidt described the process of acclimating to major league pitching as more complicated than just recognizing a curveball instead of a slider.
"Experience definitely helps," Goldschmidt said. "I mean, I don't know how much, but just thinking back to when I was first called up, guys throwing breaking pitches and all that in the minor leagues, but it's just not the same. Major league pitchers are better, they locate it better. They throw their offspeed pitches for strikes more. They're better located-not just for strikes, but on the corners. Or when they get ahead, out of the zone, but not way out of the zone, it looks like a strike, and breaks just barely out. So there's definitely an adjustment period."
His manager, Kirk Gibson, thinks those adjustments have improved Goldschmidt's ability to thrive deeper into at-bats.
"He's come up here, he's made adjustments, he's learned how to shorten his swing," Gibson, who sounds a bit like Fred Willard if Willard had the gravitas of winning an MVP and a World Series game on one leg, said during a Wednesday afternoon chat with reporters from his office in Citi Field. "I don't think he was hitting the ball inside very good early on. Now he's doing a much better job of that. He's learned some predictability about how he's gonna be pitched. He's just maturing as a major league ballplayer."
That predictability has led to a dramatic improvement for Goldschmidt in at-bats where, theoretically, he and the pitcher are at parity. Last season, after running a 1-1 count, his OPS was .676. After a 2-2 count, it was .671. This season, after a 1-1 count, his OPS is .944. After a 2-2 count, it is .908.
To Ward, that's the result of what he called "patient aggressiveness".
"When you haven't seen major league pitching, and then you start seeing it for a whole year, you start seeing good pitches on a nightly basis, okay?" Ward said. "So this graduation from the minor leagues to here, now he's seeing those really good sliders, being able to recognize those pitches, and able to lay off."
That improved ability has also meant far more opportunities to hit 1-0, or 2-0, then he got in 2012. Last season, 223 of his 587 plate appearances began 1-0, or just under 38 percent of the time. He got to 2-0 14 percent of the time. This season, he's getting to 1-0 just over 43 percent of the time, and 2-0 more than 16 percent of the time.
In case you were wondering, that's a really good thing. Goldschmidt's OPS after 1-0? 1.280. After 2-0? 1.531.
"He's putting himself in that position," Ward said of Goldschmidt getting ahead. "The pitchers are trying to get ahead. And each pitch is, I guess, detrimental, and coming to him more."
Goldschmidt recognizes that he's hit upon a formula for success in the major leagues. Now it's mostly about reacting to how pitchers are attacking him, and if and when he gets into a funk, relying on Ward, hitting coach Don Baylor, and even conversations with coaches like Matt Williams to keep him focused on basics. He watches plenty of video of pitchers, but never his own swing.
"I don't like to watch my swing," Goldschmidt says of his work periods. "I more like to feel my swing, feeling where my hands are. You don't want to try and do too much. You can get in there, look at a million things on video, or try to make sure you're perfect in the cage. But sometimes, that's overkill."
Instead, when he feels something amiss, he'll reach out to the staff.
"If my swing felt long that day, what's the adjustment to make? That's what the best in the game, that's what they do, making adjustments pitch-by-pitch, or at-bat by at-bat."
According to Ward, that's really Goldschmidt's only remaining job in the big leagues. He's 25. He's hitting as well as anyone in the game. Development time is over. Now it's just about staying at this level.
"To me, with him, it's all experience," Ward said. "His swing and his position that he's in as a hitter is where hitters are trying to get to. Now it's just about trying to maintain it."