PHOENIX — When Paul Goldschmidt was a teenager, his father wired a TV monitor to connect to a video game system in the back seat of the family Suburban. It made the travel treks from Houston to summer league games in Denver and Kansas City much more fun, so valuable that the one time the system blew a fuse, the group headed to an auto parts store for a replacement.
“You always had to show up early to Paul’s house to get a ride,” high school and summer league teammate Kyle Drabek remembered. “There was nothing better than playing video games on your way to a baseball game.”
Goldschmidt always has been an accommodating teammate. And pardon the rest of the league if it appears as if Goldschmidt is still at the controller, making all the plays.
According to his peers, Goldschmidt has been the best first baseman in the National League this season. Players, managers and coaches gave Goldschmidt about a 5-4 edge in voting for the All-Star Game over fans’ choice Joey Votto. Goldschmidt leads the league with 77 RBIs, has driven 12 of his 21 home runs at least 400 feet, has committed only three errors and and remains the only player in the majors to lead his team in home runs, RBIs and stolen bases.
It is a continuation of the progress Goldschmidt has shown since homering off Tim Lincecum in his second major league game after his promotion from Class AAA Reno on Aug. 1, 2011. The D-backs are hardly surprised after signing him to a five-year, $32 million contract extension two days before the start of the season. Not to belabor the video game comparison, but it applies in other ways, teammates volunteered.
“If you could take a rookie or a young guy on a video game and mold him exactly (how) you would want a rookie to act, work and be on and off the field, it’s him,” 12-year veteran Willie Bloomquist said.
“I don’t say that lightly. He’s in every sense of the word a professional in how he acts, how he wants to improve and how he goes about his work every day. It’s impressive in today’s game, where you have a lot of young guys that have a sense of entitlement and a sense that the game owes me something from Day 1.”
America’s First Baseman, indeed, as the T-shirt produced by Josh Collmenter and worn by J.J. Putz on Sunday proclaimed.
Goldschmidt’s work day usually starts about six hours before first pitch, about 1 p.m. for a night game. It includes film study, conditioning work and extra swings in the batting cage before batting practice begins. He has been doing it all his life, taking flips from his dad in the backyard hitting cage at a young age. The aptitude for the game always stood out, friends say, even as he played second base until his junior year in high school before filling out.
“That’s when he hit his growth spurt and got to Paul size,” Drabek said.
Drabek’s father, 1990 National League Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, coached the summer team on which both played, and he got to know Goldschmidt well. If the kids were not at one house, they were at the other. The families socialized.
“He knew baseball. He knew what to do with the ball,” said Doug Drabek, in his second season as pitching coach at the D-backs’ Class A affiliate in Hillsboro, Ore.
“You never can tell how far a kid will go (in the game). Kids grow up. But he was always one of the ones who knew how to play the game. He made the plays. At each age group, he was mature.”
Former Diamondbacks hitting coach Alan Zinter, who worked with Goldschmidt at Class A Visalia and Class AA Mobile, saw a willingness to absorb knowledge that many players were almost afraid to admit.
“Paul was very confident, but he had no ego to where he showed he had the illusion of knowledge. A lot of young kids are good hitters, and they want the coaches to believe they already know what they are doing. It’s hard for them to learn, because they don’t want to seem like they have to learn. ‘Goldy’ didn’t have that,” Zinter said.
As the two progressed through the lower minors, Zinter noticed a sophistication in Goldschmidt’s hitting approach. Early, some questioned Goldschmidt’s strikeout numbers — like many power hitters, he averages about one every four at-bats. Zinter saw something deeper. He noticed a player who knew the strike zone well enough to stay away from pitches that were not strikes, even if the umpires did not see it that way.
“He didn’t chase. He didn’t get away from his plan at the plate. He said he couldn’t do anything with those pitches, so he wasn’t going to swing at them. He didn’t mind striking out. I told him that was a good idea, because as you move up, those are not going to be strikes, and if you try to hit the ball, it changes the complexion of the at-bat,” said Zinter, now in his second season in the Cleveland organization.
“He reminds me a lot of Joey Votto that way. They didn’t expand the plate to match the umpires. The game gets a little bit better at each level, and the umpires are the same age. They are learning. The strike zone gets sharper and better as you move up.”
It was that total package that led Zinter to predict greatness for Goldschmidt, who was not taken until the eighth round of the 2009 draft despite a college career at Texas State that included winning the Southern Conference player of the year and the school’s male student/athlete of the year.
“To be honest, I could see this immediately, because of the desire he had to learn and his work ethic — I see work ethic as the passion to improve,” Zinter said. “He brought that to the park every day. I would tell people this guy is going to be a superstar. Not just get to the big leagues, but he’s going to be a superstar.
“He was a Paul Bunyan-type power hitter. His strength was hitting the ball to the opposite field, so what he had to learn was how to drive the ball to left. Now he has the ability to stay to his strength in right-center field and the technique of how to get to the ball on the inner half.”
Most of Goldschmidt’s homers this season have been to left or left-center, but one of his walkoffs was a drive off the center-field message board.
Zinter texted Goldschmidt the day he was named to the All-Star team. His message: “Well-deserved, Goldy.”
Like most D-backs, veteran Cody Ross believes this could be the first of many All-Star trips for Goldschmidt.
“No question. He’s that good and that mentally strong and tough to overcome the adversity when times are tough. He gets it. He understands you don’t want to be boisterous and sort of ‘look at me,’ because it can go the other way just as fast as you are good. That’s what makes him special. He doesn’t want any of the attention,” Ross said.
“That’s what makes good players …”
Gerardo Parra chooses that moment to blast his air horn in the clubhouse.