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Debunking the Paul Goldschmidt narratives

His trade did not “cost D-backs the playoffs”, nor has he shown them “what they miss”

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St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Well, today WAS going to be the second part of my look at how the Arizona Diamondbacls managed to trade away their best position player, lose one of their best starters to free agency, trade another away at the deadline... and still managed to improve on last year. But two articles were published yesterday which deserve to be systematically dismantled for their promotion of false narratives involving Paul Goldschmidt. So I’m holding off on part 2 for a bit - that’ll actually let me get end of season stats, so it’s no bad thing. And instead, on today’s off-day let’s craft rebuttals to these #FakeNews stories. First, we have this bit of click-bait from Barry Bloom, on Tuesday.

Arizona Diamondbacks’ Season Went South After Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke Trades

An argument can certainly be made that the trading of Goldschmidt, their best hitter, and later Zack Greinke, their best pitcher, cost the D-backs a slot in the playoffs. It was that close... It’s more than a little disingenuous for Hazen to say he can’t project where the team might have been if it had kept its two best players. They were an 82-80 team with Goldy last season, 54-54 the day before Greinke was traded, and are 80-77 now. At least 86 wins will make the playoffs in the NL. Of course, they won the Wild Card. If you do the math, Goldschmidt and Greinke would’ve made the difference.

No, Barry. If you do the math, they wouldn’t have. Even straight-up adding Goldschmidt and Greinke to the current roster - the one including Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly, etc. would not have made the difference. After his near no-hitter last night. Greinke has been worth 1.4 wins for the Astros. Goldschmidt has been worth 3.1 wins. That - if I may do the math - is 4.5 wins. The Diamondbacks currently sit 7 back of the Brewers for the second wild-card spot with three to play. 4.5 is clearly less than 7. I feel the need to point this out for those who think that saying “if you do the math,” is the same thing as ACTUALLY doing the math.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. No trade of Goldschmidt would have meant Christian Walker didn’t get the chance to prove he’s an everyday player. Let’s play the Player A/B game, though I think I may have spoiled that one a bit... :)
Player A: .258/.345/.465 = .811 OPS, 107 OPS+, 2.3 bWAR, $559,800 cost
Player B: .259/.346/.475 = .821 OPS, 114 OPS+, 3.1 bWAR, $14,500,000 cost
This goes to show the absolute sense of trading the remaining one season of Goldschmidt, when you have a player waiting in the wings, who can provide comparable production for less than one twenty-fifth of the cost. Sure, Goldy has been better than Walker. But if you’d told us at the beginning of the season, the gap between the two over a full season would be less than a win, any reasonable fan would have been offering to buy Paul’s ticket.

Even ignoring that, more directly, no Goldschmidt trade = no Weaver and Kelly. No Greinke trade = no Josh Rojas. And those are just the major-league components. There were also a slew of minor leaguers. But since the hypothesis here is that the trade “made the difference” this season, we will set them to one side, along with the cost savings of these trades, both this year (probably $20 million or so) and down the road. So, dealing purely with the performances of the major-league players in 2019, this is a more accurate, less narrative-driven look at how these two trades have stacked up for the Diamondbacks.

The trade balance

Arizona in bWAR Arizona out bWAR
Arizona in bWAR Arizona out bWAR
Luke Weaver 1.8 Paul Goldschmidt 3.1
Carson Kelly 1.8 Zack Greinke (HOU) 1.4
Josh Rojas 0.0
Total 3.6 4.5

Capital letters and bold font, please. THE TRADING OF GOLDSCHMIDT, THEIR BEST HITTER, AND LATER ZACK GREINKE, THEIR BEST PITCHER, COST THE D-BACKS... SLIGHTLY LESS THAN ONE WIN. The evidence just does not support Bloom’s claim it would have “made the difference.”

Even the headline is flat-out wrong. The D-backs are now all but certain to win more games this year than last needing to take just one from the woeful Padres this weekend to surpass last year’s tally. Is that “going south”? Or does Bloom perhaps mean the way the team has a BETTER record since trading Zack Greinke than they did before the deadline? For they are now 28-23 since the day of the trade, July 31, having gone 54-54 to that point. By what weird definition can that be called “going south”? It’s not even a given they’d be better with Greinke in the rotation. Not if he took the starts Zac Gallen got instead. For, while Greinke’s ERA+ with Houston has been great (154), it’s still not as good as Gallen’s with Arizona (156).

The claim that having G & G this year would be a difference-maker, doesn’t stand up to the historical record either. Over the seven years for which Goldschmidt was an everyday player, the D-backs made the post-season once, and averaged 78 wins. In the three full seasons they had Goldschmidt and Greinke, the D-backs made the post-season once, and averaged 81 wins. Without Goldschmidt, and to the point that Greinke was traded, the team was on pace for... 81 wins. There just isn’t a track record which establishes that either or both of them have consistently pushed the team to the playoffs. Why would this year be any different?

But that doesn’t stop Bob Nightengale from claiming he is responsible for St. Louis being in the post-season...

Paul Goldschmidt has Cardinals on brink of division title, while showing D-backs what they miss

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt has not only transformed the Cardinals into champions on the field, but they’ve taken on his personality, too. This is a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2015, but are now on the brink of winning the NL Central (90-67)... If you really want to know Goldschmidt’s value to the Cardinals, look at the complete picture. They have a great defense. They lead the National League in stolen bases, with a 79.4% success rate, the best in Cardinals’ history since at least 1951, with at least 19 players stealing a base. Yes, Goldschmidt had made that kind of impact.... Suddenly, the sloppiness in the field has vanished. The baserunning is aggressive.

Ooh, where to start? “They have a great defense.” It’s a good defense. A very good defense, indeed. Fangraphs has the Cardinals second in the National League by Def, and they have vastly improved from last year, going from +11.0 to +35.5. It certainly sounds like Goldschmidt might be the key. Except for a pesky fact. First in the National League by Def are... the Diamondbacks. Y’know, the team who lost Goldschmidt and his allegedly infectious defensive talents? And Arizona also improved their defense by an almost identical amount to St. Louis, going from +15.7 to +39.9. There’s as much evidence Goldschmidt was a defensive millstone around the D-backs’ necks. The reality? Neither is the case.

The same goes for stolen bases. The arrival of rookie Tommy Edman (14-1) appears to be a bigger factor than Goldschmidt, who has just about given up in this area, with three attempts all year (and one of those failed). Take Edman off, and the Cardinals’ success rate drops to 78.1%, which would only be good enough for seventh best in the league. And, again, the departure of Goldschmidt has hardly hurt Arizona here. The D-backs have already stolen nine more bases than when Goldy was around in 2018. Their success percentage of 86.3% is the best in the majors, and the third-best in the entire live-ball era. As with defense, it has been a case of, “No Goldschmidt? No problem!”

Now, there’s no doubt the Cardinals are a better team this season. But they’re on pace to win just 3.7 wins more than last season; it’s not as if they’ve gone last-to-first. And the improvement is coming from other areas. Here are the breakdowns of Wins Above Average by position for the Cardinals, in 2019 and 2018. If you open those pages in two tabs, you can click between them to see where their production has changed. Spoiler: it’s not first-base, where they have fractionally declined, from 1.0 wins above average to 0.9. In particular. Jack Tweeted about the real cause of the Cardinals’ improvement earlier in the week, with some stats which similarly help to deflate the intended narrative here.

It is almost entirely improvement in Cardinals’ pitching which has got them to the playoffs. So unless you think Goldschmidt is the world’s greatest pitching coach - yet again, not something we saw in Arizona - it’s hard to give him credit. The improved defense is certainly a potential factor in this change. But as we’ve seen, the evidence for Goldschmidt as the cause seems slim. It appears Bob Nightengale appears to have forgotten that correlation does not equal causation. For instance, Stubby Clapp was hired as Cardinals’ first-base coach this winter, and he co-ordinates the defense. This article provides a more detailed and credible explanation than #BecauseGoldschmidt. It calls the improvement:

A concerted, collaborative effort between players, their skill, coaches, and analytics to fix the fielding. Reflected in its tiny details are Jose Oquendo’s instincts, Ron “Pop” Warner’s research, the baseball development group’s advanced metrics, Mike Maddux’s strategy, Yadier Molina’s insight, Stubby Clapp’s synthesis, and the craftsmanship of what he joked was the “arts and crafts department.” Merged with the agility and commitment of the players, the Cardinals have restored what Kolten Wong described as the “kind of Cardinal baseball I knew coming up.”

It’s likely no coincidence in regard to this, that the Cardinals, with three games left, have employed a defensive shift 61.5% more often than they did in 2018. [The MLB median number of shifts has increased this year by less than half of that, 28.9%] That would be an important part of “the complete picture,” at which Nightengale demands we look.

Goldschmidt is a fine player, and an even better person. He will improve just about any team. But these two pieces are part of the far too-common recent trend in journalism (not limited in any way to sports), where pieces are written, not to reflect the facts, but to push an apparently pre-determined agenda, and offer over-simplistic explanations for complex situations. I note, with some amusement, Nightengale writes, “The only one refusing to praise Goldschmidt for this team-wide transformation is Goldschmidt himself.”

Paul not standing for fawning media BS? This is truly my unsurprised face.