Major League Baseball
Inside Paul Goldschmidt's quest to recapture MVP form: 'There's not a magic pill'
Major League Baseball

Inside Paul Goldschmidt's quest to recapture MVP form: 'There's not a magic pill'

Updated May. 17, 2024 11:01 a.m. ET

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Hitless in his first 32 at-bats of the month, in danger of recording the first five-strikeout game of his decorated 14-year career when he stepped to the plate representing the tying run with two outs in the ninth inning this past Saturday, Paul Goldschmidt laced his hardest hit in two weeks. 

The 103.3 mph single was not enough to complete a Cardinals comeback, running their losing streak to seven games at the time, but the sting of defeat could be a little more tolerable if the swing could unlock anything that might help the scuffling former MVP find his way. 

A day later, Goldschmidt homered for the first time in 16 games, recorded two hard-hit base hits and smashed a third hard-hit ball 101 mph off the bat on a lineout. The performance brought a smile to manager Oli Marmol's face, helped snap the Cardinals' skid and sparked a more important question: 

Has Goldschmidt finally found his rhythm? 


The answer might play as significant a role as anything in the fate of a stumbling St. Louis club that is once again stunned to be sitting in last place. 

But it's one that even Goldschmidt, even after some encouraging signs over the past week, can't know with certainty as he fights the inconsistencies that have plagued both his performance and that of a bottom-five Cardinals offense. 

"I feel good," Goldschmidt told FOX Sports in Anaheim after the Cardinals left Milwaukee with their losing skid over, "but I've said that [before] and gone out, like the other day, and struck out my first four at-bats."

Early on, it seemed like every time he might break out of his funk, another spell followed. He homered on a three-hit performance on Opening Day, then didn't get another extra-base hit in the next 20 games. He had a .931 OPS in his final 10 games of April, and a 4-for-5 night in his last game of the month to raise his OPS on the year to .641, right before the 0-for-32 slide. His OPS hasn't been above .600 since May 3. 

"For me, honestly, I've said this more about when I'm playing well, but it goes the same when you're struggling, it's just focusing on what I can control — my mindset and showing up and working as hard as I can and try to do the best job," Goldschmidt continued. "Hopefully, it'll lead to results and success. But if not today or whenever, I've put everything I can into it."

His coaches and teammates see that. 

Marmol said he has never seen anyone handle failure better than Goldschmidt — a sentiment echoed by multiple Cardinals players to FOX Sports. 

"Straight-faced, being a good teammate, still talking to everybody," rookie Masyn Winn said. "The way he does it, I don't understand it. I'll probably never be able to do that. Obviously, he's been in the league for a long time, but the dude really is just a robot."

Goldschmidt tries not to carry a bad at-bat into the field defensively or a poor performance from one day into the next — a more challenging feat for most hitters than it appears to be for him, even in the midst of his worst start ever. As much as the Cards can learn from watching the seven-time All-Star when he's going well, Marmol believes they can also learn a lot when he's not. 

An MVP just two years ago, Goldschmidt has played at a replacement level through his first 41 games in a contract year. And yet Winn has never once seen Goldschmidt get mad or take his frustration out. 

"You would never know he was struggling," Winn said. "Just to see the way he goes about it and keeps a level head, I think it calms the rest of the clubhouse." 

Still, that levelheadedness has not yielded consistent results — for Goldschmidt or his team. 

The Cardinals sport the third-lowest slugging percentage and fourth-worst OPS in the majors entering Thursday. They're tied with the White Sox for the fewest home runs in baseball. Willson Contreras, who leads the team in slugging and OPS, just broke his arm. And besides their catcher, the players they're relying on most haven't produced. 

At a time when 54 major leaguers have hit at least seven home runs, that's how many Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have combined for this year. 

Goldschmidt's struggles are particularly problematic. He sports a .591 OPS — a total considerably lower than the Cardinals' .652 mark as a group and easily his worst tally through 41 games of a season. 

"I haven't played well, it's very obvious," Goldschmidt told FOX Sports, "but if you kind of give in to that, that will continue to happen. For me, it's just about taking it each day and trying to show up and try to do anything I can to help us win."

With Contreras out, Goldschmidt's production — or lack thereof — becomes even more pronounced. There's still a prevailing feeling that if he can get going, so can the team.

"I think part of why it weighs so heavily on him," veteran DH Matt Carpenter said, "is that he knows that." 

Carpenter, who has played with Goldschmidt four of the past six seasons, praised the first baseman's mental toughness, confidence and perspective through the struggles. Carpenter has seen him claw his way out of rough stretches before. But it's actually Goldschmidt's final year in Arizona — in 2018, before he joined the Cardinals — that comes to mind for Carpenter.

That year included some eerie similarities. Goldschmidt started that May in an 0-for-24 skid, then 7-for-73. On May 22, 2018, he was slashing just .198/.320/.355 … and he still finished the year sixth in MVP voting with a 142 OPS+. 

While that might be the closest comparison to what he's going through now, there have been other notable skids. In 2019, Goldschmidt suffered through a miserable June in which he posted a .582 OPS. In 2021, he had a .597 OPS at the start of May and a .686 OPS at the start of June. Even his MVP season in 2022 began with a .146 batting average and a .195 slugging percentage through his first 11 games. 

He has always figured it out, finishing each of his first 13 seasons with an OPS (often well) above .800 for a career mark of .900 and OPS+ of 141, numbers that could ultimately land him in Cooperstown.

This year, however, stands out as particularly alarming. 

Goldschmidt could take some solace in the fact that his expected numbers are better than what he has actually produced, but they still represent career worsts — and a stark difference from last year.  

He's not barreling the baseball with any regularity. He's whiffing and striking out at a career-high rate, suggesting he might be trying to do too much, as evidenced by the highest chase rate of his career. But he's also struggling to make contact in the zone the way he would normally. At times, it has looked like he's guessing or in between at the plate. He has never had a strikeout rate above 25.1% before. It is currently at 32.4%, and his 45 swinging strikeouts are more than he had total strikeouts through the team's first 43 games each of the past four years. 

"Obviously, if the performance is not where it is, it takes a little bit more work, whether it's watching video or hitting in the cage or trying new things or trying things you've always done or continuing to do what you do," Goldschmidt told FOX Sports. "That's where you're having to evaluate it, try to evaluate it the best you can. Even if you see something, let's say with your swing that's off, it's not like we're a computer and you can just type in, ‘Keep your head still,' or, ‘Stay back or swing at better pitches.'"

In that way, not everything about him is robotic. 

And, at 36 years old, the precipitous decline adds more questions. In his final season under contract, what will it mean for his free agency if he can't return to form? And If he does perform well, but the Cardinals still aren't competitive by the deadline, could he end up elsewhere? (It's worth noting that he does have a no-trade clause). 

Goldschmidt said it can be human nature to start wondering about what's ahead and letting the mind wander.

"But I think I've worked hard throughout my career and worked with different mental coaches or read up on it, so if I do notice myself thinking about the future or the past or even really something that's out of my control or is not going to help me today, you notice it and direct your energy back to stuff you can control," Goldschmidt said. 

Right now, that means using every tool he can think of to get right at the plate. 

"Sometimes that's video or maybe drills in the cage, other times it's not," Goldschmidt said. "There's not one thing. I want to be open to different things. I think that's [what's] allowed me to have success, is adapting. It's not like, ‘Oh, well, this is what I've always done, so this is what I'm going to do.' There's changes I've made that have really helped me. There's some things I've probably tried that haven't helped. So, you've got to evaluate that."

Staying mentally strong has never been an issue. Goldschmidt always believes the next pitch is going to be the one that will get him going. 

Through the grind, he still tries to find a way to help. He knows others are looking to him, so he encourages them, trying to point something out that could help a teammate or make a defensive play that could impact a game. 

"You play with somebody, you can tell when they've kind of checked out or lost confidence and an ability to be engaged in the game, or even have like a little bit of a pouty mindset or feeling sorry for yourself, and he just doesn't do it," Carpenter told FOX Sports. "He carries himself like a pro and continues to fight at the plate. Even if it ends up in a poor result, the effort, the preparation, all that stuff is there."

Over the past five games, Goldschmidt has started to resemble a version of himself that could help the Cardinals, amassing a .304/.360/.565 slash line. Since Saturday, he has hit five balls at least 101 mph off the bat. On Wednesday, he laced a home run at 104.2 mph. The strikeouts are still troubling — he has 12 in his past 25 plate appearances while running a seemingly unsustainable .556 BABIP in that time — but his hard-hit rate and average exit velocity have seen an uptick. 

Maybe, this is where it turns. 

"There's not a magic pill," Goldschmidt said. "There's not an exact answer. Just continue to try to work."

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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