Out of nowhere, Goldschmidt now a star

June, 1, 2014
Jun 1
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Paul Goldschmidt is an MVP-caliber ballplayer. After a 7.4 WAR season last year -- good for third among National League position players -- he finished second in the MVP voting. That wasn't just a product of popularity: Using WAR as a rough guide, his 2013 season was as good as that of the 2012 (Buster Posey: 7.3), 2011 (Ryan Braun: 7.8) and 2010 NL MVPs (Joey Votto: 6.9).

[+] EnlargePaul Goldschmidt
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesPaul Goldschmidt, 26, has quickly developed into one of the game's best sluggers.
But there is something that sets Goldschmidt apart. The past three NL MVPs are all great players that we expected to be great from the day they turned pro, if not before. Braun and Posey were fifth overall selections in the draft, college stars seen as can't-miss talents. Last year's MVP, Andrew McCutchen, was the 11th overall choice as a high-school outfielder. Votto, a second-rounder out of Canada, was a reach, relative to that trio.

All four of them, scrutinized and anticipated by prospect worshippers in both the scouting and analysis communities, cracked somebody's top 25 prospect list as minor leaguers. And for the same reasons they were picked as high as they were, they belonged on those lists.

Goldschmidt never cracked a top 100 prospects list. He was an eighth-round choice out of Texas State in 2009, the 249th overall selection. He was picked after Duke's Nate Freiman, the same Freiman who was a bench player on last year's Athletics team. Goldschmidt didn't get touted after a nice half-season in Missoula in 2009 or after hitting 35 homers at High-A Visalia in the Cal League in 2010. He didn't even crack the Diamondbacks' top 10 prospect list. But after he had ripped 30 homers for Double-A Mobile through two-thirds of the 2011 season, the D-backs, then two games behind the Giants in the NL West, put a 23-year-old who had yet to register as a big-time prospect on the national stage by plugging him into a pennant race. He slugged .474 in the majors that season and hasn't looked back since.

This isn't my way of saying Goldschmidt is an underdog. Not exactly. He is relative to guys such as McCutchen or Posey, but like a lot of big-league players, Goldschmidt was first a great amateur. He and Kyle Drabek teamed up to get The Woodlands (Texas) High to the national championship in 2006. He set a Texas State record with 36 home runs in 2009. But when he was drafted, his defense was considered exceptionally poor and his swing long. Generous comparisons suggested beefy DH-to-be Pete Incaviglia. In other words: Good enough for the majors? Perhaps. A nice organizational player? Sure.

But an MVP-caliber slugger? Yes. And that's because Goldschmidt is all sorts of things wrapped up in one. Maybe you can consider him one of the best scouting finds of the past decade. But maybe he's something else -- because of what he puts on the table beyond his talent.

We must first talk about Goldschmidt as a find, though. How else do we view a hitter this good coming out of nowhere at a time when the scouting industry is following hundreds, if not thousands, of prospects? How did nobody inside the game take a shot at him before 249th overall?

As one NL scout put it, "We've almost all been one year behind him. He's always had to prove it to us before we were ready to give it to him. Even as someone who has seen the large bulk of his career development path, it's still a little hard to believe."

On the analysis side, Jason Parks, prospects guru for Baseball Prospectus, is frank: "I missed on him. I thought he was a strength-first type who would only hit mistakes. I wasn't sold on the bat speed or pure hit ability."

Some of this just goes with the territory, the hit-and-miss of the draft. "That's what makes the draft so hard," the scout said. "If we were that good, we'd have big-leaguers lined up one to whatever, and we'd take them all in the first round. But there are so many variables that go into getting a player right. Ultimately, good on the club who said yes to picking the guy. Their scouts should get the credit over calling it an industry miss."

Some of it is a matter of belatedly acknowledging the tools Goldschmidt brings to the table, even if they weren't recognized at the outset of his career.

"He's far more than just a strength hitter," Parks said. "That's legit bat speed and legit barrel control. He can stay inside the ball very well, and he learned to use all fields when pitchers would work him away. It's rare to find a hitter with his raw strength and power who can really hit. It's a deadly combo and very rare."

But that brings us to the other reason Goldschmidt was such a find, and why he represents a lesson not just to scouts and analysts but also to anybody who gets drafted and has a shot at being a major league player.

"A lot of guys have bat speed coming up," said Diamondbacks hitting coach Turner Ward, who managed Goldschmidt in his last minor league season in 2011. "One thing that separates a lot of guys is their ability to be stubborn with an approach, the mental part of the game. Everybody here is always working on their swing, trying to keep it more direct, more short. Paul doesn't haven't much movement. He keeps his head really still, and he does the right things mechanically, the little things."

Goldschmidt isn't so analytical. "I don't know if I have good bat speed or not," he said. "I just go up there and try to hit and be direct to the ball and keep my swing as short as possible."

I try to never stop learning. That doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you the best chance to have success.

-- Paul Goldschmidt
But as Ward notes, "The thing that really separates him is his mental approach."

"I try to never stop learning," Goldschmidt said. "That doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you the best chance to have success. We're all working on the physical swings, the mechanics and stuff like that, but as you get up in the minors and to the majors, the mental side of the game is that much more important. There's a million adjustments to make, even now. When you get to the big leagues, there are daily adjustments, year by year, month by month. There's a lot of little things you're always trying to learn, no matter how long you've played the game."

As such, at the outset of his time in the big leagues, Goldschmidt proved adaptable in keeping up with the perpetual cat-and-mouse game at the plate. "Take the guy I was a couple years ago: There probably weren't a lot of changes, but maybe every day, definitely every month, every year, you're getting smarter," he said.

Ward is more clinical about how his once and future pupil has changed over time. "Back in 2011, when he had 30 homers by July 31, nothing was going to stop him from being successful," he said. "Being able to make adjustments is really what you want to see in a young player. The kind of things he did then -- and is still doing now -- are so advanced for the time he has put in. He expects himself to improve, and he's still getting better. Every one of the guys here struggles, but it's how they get through it, how they shorten those struggles, that defines a player. He's resilient."

The other thing to keep in mind is how much of that growth was Goldschmidt's responsibility. While he credits Ward and former D-backs minor league hitting coach Alan Zinter for helping to shape his approach at the plate in the minors, Goldschmidt makes distinctions between playing in college and playing in the minors.

"In college, you definitely have the coaches on you more -- you don't have as much freedom," he said. "In the minor leagues, you're pretty much on your own. It's your responsibility, especially in the offseason, whereas in college, it's kind of forced on you. It's an adjustment, as a pro, to self-motivate instead of relying on a strict schedule your coaches set for you."

The work ethic that helped turn Goldschmidt from a guy seen as a beefy mistake hitter into a resilient student of hitting was also put to work transforming him into an excellent defender, even though he'd been initially evaluated as a stiff fielder.

"I used to watch him work," Ward remembered, "and I thought, 'This guy's going to become a Gold Glover.' No one would have said that before, but he worked so hard to get to where he is. The gift he has is not just [because] he can pick a ball. His work ethic is what's put him there at the top as a defender."

Goldschmidt was more no-nonsense about it, laughing as he repeated his mantra: "Defensively … you're just trying to learn new things."

As the NL scout noted, "He's the perfect example of a guy who didn't settle. He's always been known for having tremendous makeup. He put in the work in to transform his body and improve his swing. It's a true testament to the value of hard work and finding a way to get every ounce out of your raw ability. There is no question he was and is tremendously talented, but there are many guys out there with far more natural talent who have never gotten out of A-ball."

And that's the key takeaway, for fans and for players about to be drafted or laboring in the minors: Power to the players. None of us is merely the sum of what he or she was born with, and nobody is the sum of what gets selected on draft day. It is within the power of each one of us to exceed the expectations of even the canniest observer. And, if you try, like Paul Goldschmidt, you might just turn out to be something more special than anyone ever anticipated -- maybe even an MVP-caliber ballplayer.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

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