Paul Goldschmidt‘s first National League Player of the Month Award came hard on the heels of one of the worst slumps of his career. While the Arizona Diamondbacks slugger led all qualified NL hitters in batting average, runs scored, home runs and extra-base hits in the month of June, that was immediately after he struggled terribly to simply get on base in the month of May.
During his first 20 games in May, Goldschmidt went 7-for-73, seeing his batting average drop all the way to .198. He finished the month with some of the worst monthly stats of his seven-year career, including a .144 batting average and .531 OPS (on-base plus slugging).
“First of all, in May I just didn’t play well,” he said. “That whole month, I was trying to find what adjustments I could make, looking at video, in the cage, with our coaches here. It really didn’t work. It wasn’t like June 1 came, and all of a sudden a light bulb went off or anything.
“I was trying to take good swings, but I don’t think I was really getting in that great of a position to hit. I was trying to look at video. I was trying to get in the cage. I was trying to do drills. It wasn’t really happening. And then maybe at the end of that month, I felt like I was kind of moving in a good direction.”
According to D-backs hitting coach Dave Magadan, Goldschmidt did have to make some minor mechanical adjustments. But the core of the work had to do with combining those adjustments with being selective at the plate.
“There were some small mechanical things that he was working on that he started falling into last year. He came out of the spring swinging the bat OK, but not what we’ve come to expect out of Paul. So it was just a matter of cleaning that stuff up,” Magadan said. “When you’re trying to make some changes, whether they’re significant or small, there is that period of time when you’re kind of thinking about it in the game probably more than you should. There was probably a period of time where he was probably thinking a little bit about the mechanical issues, and then it was splitting his focus in the game where he was probably swinging at pitches that he normally doesn’t swing at. That kind of snowballed and is part of a reason why he was going through that bad period. So it was a combination of the two: the mechanical issues along with pitch selection.”
But it wasn’t exactly an easy fix. Goldschmidt continued to struggle in May, especially against fastballs coming in at 95 mph or faster. This translated to pitchers attacking him with their hardest heat.
“When I was struggling in May, some people brought up that I wasn’t hitting fastballs in that velocity that well. But for me, I just felt like I wasn’t really hitting anything,” Goldschmidt said.
Just three other hitters saw as many fastballs thrown that hard through the first two months of the 2018 season: Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and Matt Olson. Goldschmidt not only struggled to make contact with hard heat, but he also couldn’t hit it for power, despite having registered a .790 OPS against fastballs clocked at 95-plus before this year.
“I am not someone that looks at the numbers, [but] I was like, all right, let me check out what I did in previous years because I knew I was a little off,” Goldschmidt said. “I looked to see if in previous years I was struggling, especially last year or the last two years. If I was struggling on fastballs or fastball over 95 or whatever it is, and I was doing it again this year, then I would feel like maybe there’s a bigger change you could make. But I feel like in the past years, I did well on fastballs over 95. Then if I can get back to where my swing was and get back to my timing, then it would take care of itself. At least last year, I know I hit fastballs really well.
“We’re not computers. You’re human,” he added. “So for whatever reason, you’re going to be off. For me, it’s about simplifying it — trying to have a simple swing, not a lot of movement, not a big leg kick. Let’s stay simple. Let’s stick with the same stuff I was doing when I was doing well.”
A rival’s executive described Goldschmidt’s struggles in May as “unusual” and emphatically stated that they “would not last.” Any suggestion that the now 30-year-old could be slowing down in his swing or reflexes was met by a skeptical, “One can hope so, but it’s unlikely.”
With the myriad injuries the Diamondbacks endured early this season, it was also Goldschmidt’s burden to carry the lineup while enduring one of the worst slumps of his career. As evidenced by Arizona’s current 1.5-game lead on the Dodgers (with the Giants not much further back), the more he succeeds, the better the D-backs will be.
“It’s very easy to put things on paper, but it’s really just about the experience of facing pitchers and dealing with failure,” Goldschmidt said. “Even my start to this year, using that as a learning experience and dealing with that failure and maybe learning something new about my swing or the way they’re attacking me, even though that month statistically was one of my worst. You can learn from that and be a better ballplayer from it.”
It’s precisely that uncanny ability to turn his “May Day” slump into a teaching moment that is one of the reasons Magadan believes Goldschmidt will continue to be one of the game’s elite hitters.
“He’s willing to put in the work. He knows his swing. He can make in-game adjustments like nobody I’ve ever seen,” Magadan said. “And those are the elite hitters, the elite hitters that can get immediate feedback off a pitch or swing and then make the adjustment. That’s a big part why Goldy is so good.”