I think about this tweet all the time:
Albert Pujols is still owed about $220m on his contract. Would you rather have Pujols or Goldschmidt over those 8 years?
— Christopher D. Long (@octonion) April 30, 2013
At the time, it was more about putting Pujols’ decline into perspective. Goldschmidt was a pretty good, kinda young ballplayer, while Pujols was coming off a 17th-place MVP finish in his first season as an Angel. He’d finished in the top 10 in MVP voting the previous 11 seasons, was his generation’s inner-circle Hall of Famer, and at 33 was still projected to be among the game’s most valuable players—in fact, according to PECOTA that year, its very most valuable. This was a tweet about the inevitability of time, age, decline, exhaustion. Paul Goldschmidt, pretty good kinda young ballplayer, was a prop.
Along the way, it became a tweet about Paul Goldschmidt, and the total uninevitability of anything at all. Because it’s not that Goldschmidt would go on to be as good as Pujols in the next three seasons—before the real decline years even kicked in for Pujols—but that Goldschmidt would go on to be very nearly as good as Pujols himself was at the same age.
Okay, at least in the conversation.
- Goldschmidt, ages 25-27: 21.5 WARP in 426 games
- Pujols, ages 25-27: 26.6 WARP in 462 games
That’s both a substantial difference and not really much of one—on a per-game level, the difference is about one win per 162 games, or two runs per month. Still, if you think it’s a cheat to put Goldschmidt and Pujols on the same level, I'm not doing it here just because of Chris Long’s tweet. Goldschmidt has become not just almost as good as Pujols, but so very much like Pujols.
Both, for instance, were more than just incredible hitters. Pujols was, in his prime, the best offensive first baseman in the game, the best defensive first baseman in the game, and in at least a couple seasons the best baserunning first baseman in the game. Now here’s Goldschmidt last year:
- FRAA: 17.1 runs, best among 1B (Adrian Gonzalez 11.0)
- BRR: 2.4 runs, second-best among 1B (Eric Hosmer, 2.7)
- VORP: 68.8 runs, second-best among 1B (Joey Votto, 69.2)
He basically came a double and two stolen bases or so from sweeping the category.
And, as with Pujols, this is all from a guy who was completely overlooked in part because he lacked speed, defense or athleticism.
Last week on Effectively Wild, Ben and I answered a question about which “miss” was bigger: 21 teams missing on Mike Trout in the first round, or 29 teams missing on Paul Goldschmidt all the way to the eighth. Nobody saw Trout doing this—it was an industry-wide miss—but everybody saw him doing something. That’s not true at all for Goldschmidt. There might not be a more embarrassing pile of clips out there than the one you could put together on prospect writers’ Goldschmidt takes. Really, normally I’d blockquote a few of them here, but they’re so far off, so late into his minor-league carer, and so sure of his limitations, that I actually think I would lose friends if I did. It’s a given that his defense and athleticism were criticized, but many/most took shots at his bat, too—the swing was slow, the hits came on mistakes, the competition levels were too low, and so on.
It’d be something to behold if Goldschmidt had simply become excellent at one of the big three of player performance—hit, field, run. But to become excellent—or, at least, excellent for his position and role—at all three is, well, Pujolsian.
And I think that’s the deeper meaning of Paul Goldschmidt to our understanding of the sport, of life, etc. Imagine you’ve got a car. Imagine that! What a world, you and a car. So your car is a normal car, a Subaru, with normal brakes, a normal speeder-up thing, and a normal stereo system. If you go to the Rolls Royce store and buy the world’s greatest brakes and have them installed, now you’ve got the world’s greatest brakes. The rest of the car is otherwise a Subaru—speeds up as fast as ever, bumps jams like a Subaru.
This is a normal way to think about improvement in our lives. I don’t floss as much as I’d like to, and the solution to that is to floss more—be a better flosser. I have basically no physical stamina, and the solution to that is to exercise more, sit around less, and maybe mix in a salad. If you want to improve one aspect of your life, target it and improve that aspect of your life.
Goldschmidt, though, gives us a very different way of thinking about improvement. It’s not that he got better at hitting, then got better at fielding, then got better at running. The odds of a single player improving as much as he has at each of those three things totally independently of each other is just too great to fathom. Rather, it’s that he just got better. His body and soul got better at baseball, and it manifested itself across everything he had to do. There was some obstacle to him being this good at baseball, and it got removed—either he removed it, or he overcame it, or he had three wishes and that genie hasn’t come back with the ironic twist yet. I would bet you anything Paul Goldschmidt is better at ping pong now than he was five years ago, too. I would bet he flosses more.
Goldschmidt—and Pujols—suggest that we aren’t a collection of discrete talents, operating independently of each other. Rather, we’re each of us a single machine, and all the little parts of that machine thrive off each other in some way that brings them all up or down together. In the Subaru analogy, it’s not about the brakes or about the speeder-up thing or the subwoofers; it’s about realizing that an awful lot of us were actually Rolls Royces all along, but there was a boot on the tire. There was no gas. We were putting the key in backward. Whatever.
Finding the right boot to remove, or the right key to put in the ignition, is a mystery that each of us has to solve, and even after we've found it we might not realize we ever did. For a ballplayer, some folks would call the ability to improve like this makeup, and for some players who do more than scouts ever saw them doing makeup is undoubtedly the key. Makeup is the underlying skill that can guide improvement in every aspect of performance. But sometimes it might be a growth spurt. It might be the right work by the right coach. It might be breaking your arm just the right way and subsequently throwing your fastball many mph faster.
And in real life it might be finally finding the right group of friends, or finally getting enough sleep, or your family finally escaping the cycle of poverty, or finally getting treatment. Improvement is possible, and Paul Goldschmidt’s success suggests it’s not limited and it’s not necessarily linear—even if it’s also not all that likely.
There’s something incredibly fun about Bryce Harper, the kid who at 15 was going to be the best player in the world, dodging every threat and roadblock and growing up to become the best player in the world, doing it in ways that even we weren’t greedy enough to ask for at the time. There’s also something incredibly fun about Paul Goldschmidt, the kid who at the age Harper is now still wasn’t anything at all, growing up to become another best player in the world, and doing it in ways that reflect a complete and total mastery of every aspect of the game. They’re both so fun. Baseball is so fun.