After Years of Coming Close, Paul Goldschmidt Is the N.L. M.V.P.

As a high school senior and Astros fan growing up near Houston, Paul Goldschmidt was watching from his center-field seat in Minute Maid Park when Albert Pujols smashed one of the signature home runs of his career. It came against Astros closer Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series.

On Thursday, Goldschmidt, 35, became the first St. Louis Cardinal since Pujols in 2009 to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. The years melt together, but special moments stand out.

This was a career year for Goldschmidt, who adds his first M.V.P. Award after a summer in which he was Pujols’s teammate during the latter’s homecoming tour de force for the Cardinals, who won the N.L. Central. Goldschmidt received 22 of the 30 first-place votes, while a pair of standout third basemen finished behind him: San Diego’s Manny Machado (.298, 32 homers, 102 R.B.I.) was second with seven first-place votes, and Goldschmidt’s St. Louis teammate Nolan Arenado (.293, 30 homers, 103 R.B.I.) was third with one.

As late as Sept. 1, Goldschmidt was challenging to become the first N.L. player to win the league’s triple crown since another Cardinal, Joe Medwick, whose nickname was Ducky, did it in 1937. A September slump scotched his chance, but Goldschmidt wound up finishing second in the N.L. in R.B.I. (115), third in batting average (.317) and tied for fifth in home runs (35).

As it was, he led the league in on-base plus slugging percentage (.981) and, using Baseball Reference’s formula, in offensive wins above replacement (7.5). His O.P.S. was 63 points higher than that of his next-closest competitor, the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman (.918), who was last year’s N.L. M.V.P.

For Goldschmidt, the voting caps his spectacular season and is a breakthrough career achievement. He finished second in M.V.P. voting in 2013 to Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and second again in 2015, that time to Washington’s Bryce Harper. He also finished third in 2017 (behind Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto) and sixth in 2018 and 2021.

Goldschmidt, left, and Nolan Arenado, right, helped power the Cardinals to the postseason, and both of them were finalists for N.L. M.V.P.Credit…Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

“I haven’t looked at the stats. It’s had to be one of the best years, definitely in the regular season, which is great,” Goldschmidt said last month as the Cardinals headed into their N.L. wild-card series against Philadelphia. He added: “Sometimes some years are better than others, and I don’t know if you can always really put your finger on it when you’re in it. You just try to do the best you can and, you know, stuff happens.”

While Goldschmidt glittered throughout the season’s first five months, the final weeks tempered what could have been an even more memorable campaign. Following a five-R.B.I., two-homer game against the Cubs on Aug. 25, he led the N.L. in batting average and R.B.I. and was only one homer behind Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber for the league lead. But over his final 27 games, Goldschmidt batted .245 (23 for 94) with two homers and 10 R.B.I.

The cooling down continued into his team’s brief, two-game wild-card sweep by the Phillies. Goldschmidt was 0 for 7 with four strikeouts as the Cardinals were eliminated. Three of those strikeouts came with at least one runner aboard, including in the eighth inning of the second game after Lars Nootbaar walked and Pujols singled with the Cardinals trailing, 2-0, and trying to save their season. (M.V.P. voting is conducted after the regular season but before the postseason begins.)

“I didn’t play good all September and now October, so it really stinks, you know,” Goldschmidt told reporters after that final loss. “It’s 100 percent on me. I didn’t do my job, and it stinks.”

But without him, the Cardinals in all likelihood wouldn’t even have been playing in the postseason. And this month, he is racking up honors. Goldschmidt won his second N.L. Hank Aaron Award as the league’s best hitter and his fifth Silver Slugger award. That is the most by any first baseman since the award was instituted in 1980.

After 12 seasons in the majors, the past four with St. Louis, Goldschmidt’s 1.047 O.P.S. against left-handed pitching ranks third in Major League Baseball history among those with at least 750 career plate appearances. He trails only Frank Thomas (1.083) and Manny Ramirez (1.060) in that category. This summer, he moved past one of his heroes from his childhood in Houston, the Astros Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell (1.023).

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