Opposite Attracts: Appreciating Paul Goldschmidt’s Oppo-Field Prowess

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Before wielding the thundering stick that indiscriminately demolishes all sides of the baseball, including the oft-neglected inner half that generates the “oppo power” an opposing All-Star pitcher deems “ridiculous,” Paul Goldschmidt started small.

As a teenager, Goldschmidt took hitting lessons from Joe Canizaro, a Houston-area instructor whose son, Jay, played four big league seasons. Among the myriad drills Joe ran his prized pupil through was using a miniature 22-inch Louisville Slugger in soft toss to help Goldschmidt swing quickly and stay inside the baseball. Joe says that Goldschmidt’s “lightning-fast” hands enabled him to master the drill swiftly.

“That kind of muscle memory and repetition of being short and quick to the ball allows the ball to travel further, and you can make a decision later,” Jay says. “That’s the whole key to hitting.”

The small-scale irony is that this drill helped spawn a nemesis: Joe learned it from Jay, who picked it up from Frank Cacciatore, his hitting coach in Double-A Shreveport — an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, one of the teams Goldschmidt has made a living destroying since debuting with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.

The larger impact is that it helped forge the league’s top practitioner of a rudimentary skill that has eroded so severely, baseball’s new commissioner is considering a rule change to compensate.

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Until an errant early-August fastball from then-Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri broke the fourth metacarpal of Goldschmidt’s left hand, the 2013 NL MVP runner-up was enjoying another ascendant season. He’d led the NL with 36 home runs in ’13, and at the time of his 2014 injury, he was tops in the league in doubles and ranked in the top five in on-base and slugging percentage.

Goldschmidt, who also suffered a hand fracture in college,1 says he was close to 100 percent by the end of the 2014 regular season and isn’t concerned about his health entering spring training.

“My hand feels great,” Goldschmidt says during a recent phone interview. “Honestly, I forget I even broke it.”

That quick recovery and consistent mind-set won’t surprise anyone who knows Goldschmidt. Ron Eastman, Goldschmidt’s coach at Houston baseball powerhouse The Woodlands High School, has won three national coach of the year awards and three state titles, and he’s coached 23 eventual MLB draft picks, including first-rounders Jameson Taillon and Kyle Drabek. But even amid that illustrious cadre of baseball alumni, Goldschmidt stands out in Eastman’s mind for his work ethic, character … and opposite-field power.

“Paul hit the inside half of the baseball better than any high school kid I’ve ever seen,” Eastman says.

When Mike Rutledge, a tax attorney by day who also coaches the Houston-area Kyle Chapman summer team, watches MLB highlights of his former star, he sees the same familiar swing path.

“I’m sure it’s been tweaked, but that swing has not changed since he was 16 years old, not materially,” Rutledge says. (For his part, Goldschmidt says he’s “never really thought about” his swing’s evolution.)

Though the injury limited Goldschmidt’s overall 2014 production, that consistent stroke helped him match his stellar 2013 campaign in other areas: In 109 contests last season, Goldschmidt batted .434 when pulling the ball in play, according to Baseball-Reference’s hit location data, but batted .517 when hitting the ball to the opposite field. To appreciate how much of an anomaly that is, consider that in 2014, the average right-handed batter posted a .395 average on balls in play to the pull side and a .287 average the other way. Furthermore, Goldschmidt has hit 34 percent of his 85 career home runs to either right field or right-center field; by comparison, all other major league right-handed hitters have slugged 14 percent of their homers to right or right-center since Goldschmidt’s rookie season.

In an era of increasingly pull- and power-happy hitters, Goldschmidt is a rarity. Batters’ declining tendency to hit to the opposite field has become so pervasive that baseball has seen a corresponding, exponential rise in defensive overshifting in recent seasons, particularly in 2014, and even on right-handed batters.

There were 2,357 shifts across the majors in 2011, but 13,296 in 2014, according to Baseball Info Solutions. And though there’s debate on the topic, many argue that such a jump has contributed to leaguewide batting averages being at their lowest in 42 seasons. Many hitters’ ability to go the opposite way is so poor that Rob Manfred, who took over as MLB commissioner on January 25, suggested that eliminating overshifts might be a good way to inject additional offense into the game.

“It’s not anything I’ve really studied so I can’t really have an opinion,” Goldschmidt says. “Most of the numbers say defenses are doing pretty good, but as a hitter it’s not something I’ve ever really thought about. I just try to hit the ball hard, and hopefully they don’t catch it. Where they’re playing is out of your control as a hitter.”

Despite Goldschmidt’s modest demurral, there is an antidote to the shift, and it’s a discipline at which the first baseman excels: hitting the ball where it’s pitched.

“Paul is smart enough to realize the majority of the hitting he was going to probably do was to center field or right field,” says Ty Harrington, Goldschmidt’s college coach at Texas State. “So he trained himself and trained on the idea of hitting balls middle-away, which is where the majority of people pitched him in college. And then he had the ability, the strength, and the [physicality] to hit balls out to center field or right-center.”

No less an authority than Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived, confessed that opposite-field hitting wasn’t easy. He faced some of the first defensive overshifts in baseball history, including one devised by former Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau, in which all four infielders were on the right side of second base. After first seeing the shift, Williams (as recounted in The Kid by Ben Bradlee Jr.) wrote in a September 1946 column for the Boston Globe: “It takes time to break away from your natural habit. Hitting to the opposite field is a science. Players who have accomplished this skill have required many long hours of practice. That’s what I’m going to have to do.”

And that’s exactly what Goldschmidt did. “I think his BP really tells you who he is because of his consummate work, his consistent approach,” Harrington says, speaking as though time in the cage were a window into Goldschmidt’s baseball soul. “If a person really wanted to identify Paul’s personality, then watch him take batting practice.”

Much of that work centered on learning to spray the ball all around the field. Harrington says that Goldschmidt seemed to aim for the top of the outfield wall — line-drive height — during batting practice rather than the bleachers themselves, and Trip Couch, the former Arizona area scout who advocated drafting Goldschmidt, once told me, “He’s just always been more of a line-drive guy. He wasn’t an awe-inspiring BP home run guy as an amateur.”

Chad MacDonald, a special assistant to the GM with the Braves who worked in amateur scouting with the Diamondbacks when the club drafted Goldschmidt, also touts Goldschmidt’s focused and disciplined approach. “He really tracks the ball a little longer than most guys,” MacDonald says. “Most guys are dead-pull guys, and most home runs are to the pull side, but he’s pretty patient. He lets the ball get deep and can hit them out to right-center for sure.”

It’s easier to hit an outside pitch to the opposite field than it is to do so with one thrown inside, but doing so requires exercising the patience to let the ball get deep over the plate, practically into the catcher’s mitt. The Diamondbacks led all teams with four instances of catcher’s interference last season; Goldschmidt accounted for all four.

“For a big, strong guy, he can manipulate a baseball pretty well,” former Arizona general manager Kevin Towers says. “It’s strength, it’s trust in yourself, it’s slowing that heart rate down.”

paul-goldschmidt-arizona-3-triJim McIsaac/Getty Images

Goldschmidt, who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, is surprisingly spry for his size, having led Arizona in stolen bases twice. But his laborious efforts more than his natural athleticism have made him the player he is.

“He really works on staying connected with his lower half and being able to drive that ball to the opposite field,” says Diamondbacks hitting coach Turner Ward, who was retained this offseason despite front office and managerial changes. “It’s not just a gift — it’s something that he truly works on.”

Goldschmidt worked to develop not only the fundamentals of his swing, but also his power. He was so dedicated to training that, as a teenager, he worked out even while recovering from a stress fracture in his back. Told to avoid doing any rotational movements with his torso, Goldschmidt went to the gym and lifted with his lower body. The evening he received medical clearance to resume full activities, he went for a three-mile run and then met Joe Canizaro to hit the rest of the evening. Such diligence paid dividends.

“His biceps looked like double ice-cream scoops,” Rutledge says.

Goldschmidt’s high school power — which included a state-title-winning home run to straightaway center field at a Triple-A stadium that Canizaro says hasn’t come down yet — didn’t immediately translate to the college level, however.

Goldschmidt, who hit cleanup for Texas State as a freshman, broke the hamate bone in his left hand in his fourth collegiate game, and after taking six weeks off to recover, he had trouble mustering anything more than singles. By his 19th game of the season, Goldschmidt still hadn’t managed an extra-base hit, and his power outage became a large enough point of conversation that when he finally doubled at Central Arkansas in his 59th at-bat after returning from injury, “the whole dugout jumped up and started hollering and screaming,” Harrington says.

Goldschmidt homered only once as a freshman and didn’t hit any the following summer in the Texas Collegiate League — “I don’t know if I want to blame it on [the injury],” Goldschmidt says. “It kind of sounds like an excuse” — but the power arrived shortly thereafter. He led the Southland Conference in home runs the next two years, belting 17 as a sophomore and 18 as a junior (when he also led Division I with 88 RBIs). In the minors, Goldschmidt averaged a homer every four games at all three minor league levels he saw, and by the third, Double-A, the scouting report on his opposite-field power was well known.

“Goldschmidt had hit a home run on top of our clubhouse in right field,” says Rays starter Matt Moore, who pitched for the Montgomery Biscuits and joined Goldschmidt in the 2011 Double-A All-Star Game. “The whole time [facing him] I was like, ‘Just don’t leave something over the middle or away. Just miss in.’”

USA Today named Goldschmidt its 2011 minor league player of the year for his 30 home runs in 103 games even though he spent the final two months of the season in the majors. Goldschmidt homered twice for the Diamondbacks in that season’s NLDS against the Brewers — one a grand slam and both to the opposite field. Asked if he was surprised that Goldschmidt skipped Triple-A and made such an immediate impact in the majors, Ward, who managed Goldschmidt in Double-A, says, “I was surprised I had him that long.”

About the only thing quicker than Goldschmidt’s ascension through the minors is the record speed at which all of his former coaches rush to praise him. There’s only one naysayer in the lot: Goldschmidt, who deflects credit as strongly, patiently, and effectively as he swats baseballs. Rather than accept the praise, he goes the other way.

Joe Lemire (@LemireJoe) is a freelance baseball writer living in New York City. He is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer whose work also appears in The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and on Sports on Earth. 

This post has been updated to correct Paul Goldschmidt’s career home run total.

Filed Under: MLB, Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks, NL West, The Shift, Beating the Shift, Hitting, MLB Stats, Advanced Stats, Kevin Towers, MLB Draft, College Baseball, Home Runs, Baseball, Joe Lemire