The cycle for a major league hitter has been well established for decades. He improves rapidly in his early 20s, peaks around 27, perhaps holds that for a few years and then begins a slow decline.
And then there’s Paul Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt was a fine player for the first part of his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, making six All-Star teams. His peak years, as you might expect, ran from age 25, when he led the league in homers and runs batted in, through age 30.
But when he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 2018 season, some of his numbers began to drop. While he still provided a great deal of value, he stopped making the All-Star team.
His batting average stayed close to .300, and his homer totals around 30, but he began slipping elsewhere, notably in walks. His on-base plus slugging percentage, almost always over .900 in Arizona, slipped below that figure for three straight years.
This season has been a different story. Through Wednesday, Goldschmidt was leading the National League in the trinity of statistics, batting average (.332), on-base percentage (.412) and slugging percentage (.611); the batting average and slugging numbers were career highs. He already had 25 homers — six short of last year’s full season total — and he returned to the All-Star Game for the first time in four years.
His OPS was 1.023, another career high, and trailed only the American Leaguers Yordan Álvarez of the Houston Astros and Aaron Judge of the Yankees. Goldschmidt also ranks second to Judge in Baseball Reference’s version of WAR for position players. And he has done it while playing Gold Glove-level defense at first base.
All of this has come at age 34, a time when most players have begun their decline. It has been 16 years since a player ended his 34-year-old season with an OPS as high as Goldschmidt’s: Manny Ramirez had a 1.058 OPS for the 2006 Red Sox. (Mark McGwire’s 70-homer season in 1998, which produced a 1.222 OPS, ranks first among players in their Age-34 season.) And Goldschmidt’s big Age-34 season has notably come at a time when baseball has far more stringent testing for performance -enhancing drugs.
The big season has accelerated Goldschmidt’s climb up the career lists, with the first baseman passing 300 homers, 1,000 runs and 1,000 RBI this season.
“When you drive the ball as well as he does and you hit for power, hit for average and are a well-rounded hitter — and not just hitting .220 with a 30 percent strikeout rate with 30 homers, but, like, actually being a hitter that is feared in all situations — that’s a big deal,” Cardinals Manager Oliver Marmol told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month.
Marmol was right: Goldschmidt stands a good chance of being only the eighth player since 2012 to hit 30 or more home runs while batting .330 or higher.
The only blemish on Goldschmidt’s career season has been some recent criticism for declining to be vaccinated against Covid-19, which prevented him and third baseman Nolan Arenado from playing in a two-game series against Toronto last month. (The Cardinals split the games.) That issue would come up again if St. Louis were to face the Blue Jays in the World Series.
While neither team leads its division, Toronto and St. Louis have been on the move in recent weeks, and the Cardinals seem like a legitimate threat to prevent the Milwaukee Brewers from repeating as NL Central champions.
Goldschmidt, Arenado and second baseman Tommy Edman rank second, third and seventh in WAR among position players; no other team has three players in the top 10. Combined, they account for 15 WAR.
The Cardinals also have a better run differential than the Brewers, a vital statistic that St. Louis ranks fourth among National League teams. And that figure could improve after St. Louis bolstered its rotation with trades at the deadline for José Quintana and Jordan Montgomery, a pair of quality left-handed starters.
Even if they fail to win the division, the Cardinals would be in line for one of the NL’s three wild-card spots in the expanded playoff field.
And should Goldschmidt get back to the postseason, there is reason to believe his outlandish season would continue: In 21 playoff games, he has eight home runs.