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Dan Bickley

Diamondbacks’ slump casts spotlight on a struggling Paul Goldschmidt

Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (44) during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Friday, May 11, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The Diamondbacks have slammed into a wall. It’s the only thing they’re hitting at Chase Field.

Their current slump is vexing. It’s souring the buzz surrounding a team that won nine consecutive series to start the season. It’s casting an unexpected spotlight on Paul Goldschmidt, who has shriveled from perennial MVP candidate to deer in headlights.

Some of this should be expected. For six weeks, an injury-plagued team made winning look too easy. Jake Lamb’s prolonged absence has taken its toll.  The Chase Field humidor is having an undeniable effect, marginalizing a hitters’ haven that ranked second, eighth, second and third among offensive-friendly ballparks in the previous four years.

In 2018, it has morphed into a pitcher’s paradise, a stadium ranked 29th out of 30 teams entering Sunday’s game.

Adversity was inevitable. So were unbecoming losing streaks. But none of this would seem so dire if Goldschmidt wasn’t struggling like a Class AA call-up, enough to question his confidence and his name on the lineup card.

A defining quote emerged after Friday’s loss to the Nationals, when Diamondbacks Manager Torey Lovullo relayed a message to the media.

“I’ll share exactly something that he told me to tell you guys because he’s aware of these questions being asked often,” Lovullo said. “And he said, ‘Just tell them that I suck.’”

The pre-emptive strike was brilliant, drawing laughs from the gathering. But Goldschmidt’s slump has been painful to watch, and now it’s painful on the ears. And the biggest question is why Lovullo needed to have a conversation with his first baseman before his impending press conference, since Goldschmidt has never asked anyone to speak on his behalf.

Best guess:  Lovullo didn’t want to minimalize the ongoing struggles, pretending like nothing is wrong. That would damage his credibility as a truth-teller, one of his better qualities. So he approached Goldschmidt first, out of respect and to help shape the narrative. So his player wasn’t blindsided when the clubhouse was open for interviews.

Goldschmidt has endured prolonged struggles before and always recovered. He deserves our patience and blind faith. Only an ingrate would treat him like a scrub, showering him vitriol in this moment of weakness. But he’s rarely looked this uncomfortable at the plate.

Theories spawn from analytics. Goldschmidt is taking too many first-pitch strikes, only increasing his anxiety. He is striking out too much, flailing at pitches that don’t deserve his respect. He’s having a hard time barreling up, and his percentage of hard-hit balls has plummeted in 2018.

But the numbers don’t explain his discomfort at the plate or the look on his face, which must be very reassuring to opposing pitchers. It has marginalized a man who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, a hulking presence that should strike horror in the opposite dugout. And that’s why this slump seems dangerously different.

The humidor must be something of a psychologically barrier for Diamondback hitters who play 81 games at Chase Field, especially those who have been here a while and know how the ball once sailed off the bat. It’s hard to believe a player of Goldschmidt’s caliber would be intimidated by a change in his environment, and yet his road numbers are significantly better than his output at Chase Field.

We’ve seen a lot of weirdness in Arizona, but the deconstruction of Goldschmidt is one of the most baffling developments in recent memory. And the pressure is obviously building.

Goldschmidt has spent his entire career shunning individual credit and deferring praise to others. But this time, he’s painfully aware that this slump isn’t just his problem. It’s dragging down the entire team, at a time when there aren’t many impact hitters in the lineup.

Under General Manager Mike Hazen, the Diamondbacks have done a stellar job at forecasting the future, shoring up deficiencies and signing the right kind of players. The team has already dealt with numerous injury setbacks in 2018. But nobody could’ve anticipated this problem.

Trading for Manny Machado is an attractive option, if only as a rental player. The impending free agency of A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin suggest the Diamondbacks have a window of opportunity that will be closing soon, stressing the need to win now.  Acquiring Machado would also keep him from the Dodgers, at least for the remainder of 2018. But the Orioles’ slugger is in high demand, and Hazen won’t be able to steal him when no one’s looking, the way he did with J.D. Martinez.

Or they wait for reinforcements to arrive from the injured list, encouraged that the Rockies seem to be the only legitimate threat in the National League West, thus deploying all their collective brainpower to solving the Goldschmidt problem.

But a four-game sweep by the Nationals has changed the mood and the outlook. And if fans lose faith in Goldschmidt, a player who represents everything good with the Diamondbacks, what is there to believe in?

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com.  Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier