CINCINNATI -- Longtime Major League executive Roland Hemond was standing on the floor of the MLB Network studio the night of the First-Year Player Draft, describing the strategy of the D-backs club he was there to represent.
"We're looking," Hemond said that night, "for the next Paul Goldschmidt. "
It was a tall order.
Teams can go decades without finding a kid like Goldschmidt. He was plucked out of the eighth round of the amateur Draft and now, four years later, is a legit National League Most Valuable Player candidate.
Goldschmidt was so hungry to learn and to grow and to bend the ear of every coach that crossed his path that he began to defy the doubts about his defensive capability or his strikeout-prone swing. He arrived to the big leagues two years ago on a plane that was struck by lightning (and maybe that should have been our first clue that something special was brewing here) and has been sparking the D-backs ever since.
There are, unquestionably, more hyped and more hounded players across the Major League spectrum, but when it comes to the 2013 standings, there are few who have been as impactful as the 25-year-old Goldschmidt.
"He's carried us all year," second baseman Aaron Hill said. "Every guy in here learns something from him, as far as work ethic and how he goes about the game."
And everyone around the league takes note. When Goldschmidt came to bat with the bases loaded in the top of the eighth inning Tuesday night, with the D-backs leading the Reds, 1-0, manager Dusty Baker got an uncomfortable feeling in his gut.
"I talk to guys in San Francisco, and they say, 'Hey man, don't mess with this guy,'" Baker said. "I'm thinking, 'Oh, man, maybe he'll hit one at somebody.' That's what I'm thinking. 'I'll take even a sac fly right now. Just don't hit the ball out of the park.' But then -- POW! He hits it out of the park."
It was Goldschmidt's third grand slam of the season, perhaps the most obvious stat -- but far from the only one -- to demonstrate his clout in the clutch.
How do you define a clutch hitter? Well, there's that increasingly common assumption among statheads that "clutch hitters" are a fabrication of the mind, that past clutchness is in no way, shape or form an indication or prediction of future clutchness. And those arguments have a lot of mathematical merit.
There is, however, such a thing as a guy who is pliable enough with his approach and calm enough in his interior to not be overcome by the game's more emotional moments. A guy like Goldschmidt, who has applied that approach and mindset and turned it into an inordinately clutch campaign.
"He's a unique guy, a unique ballplayer," manager Kirk Gibson said. "He's open to suggestions and he really searches out how to be better. This is what he did in the Minor Leagues, and he's just progressed up through the ranks. ... Whatever he's going to do, he has conviction in it."
The numbers are convincing.
In what Baseball-Reference.com describes as "high-leverage" situations (essentially a measure of how important a situation was, factoring in the inning, score, outs, players on base, etc.), Goldschmidt entered Thursday batting .343 with 13 homers, six doubles, 49 RBIs and a 1.193 OPS.
With two outs and runners in scoring position, Goldschmidt was batting .333 with a 1.086 OPS.
In ninth innings, he was batting .500 with six homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.510 OPS.
With the count full, he was batting .349 with a 1.187 OPS.
With the bases are loaded, beyond the three grand slams was the .400 average and 1.717 OPS. I think you get the idea.
Oh, but did I mention Goldschmidt leads the NL in Win Probability Added (WPA) at 6.3? Or that, according to Baseball-Reference.com, he's just the ninth player since 1969 to log at least seven games in a single season in which his WPA was 0.4 or higher?
All of the above qualifies as clutch. And whether or not this is a binding term, it's an absolutely applicable one that has allowed the D-backs to remain relevant in the NL Wild Card hunt. The NL MVP field is fairly wide open at this point, with the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Andrew McCutchen the current frontrunners, but Goldschmidt deserves a prominent spot in the current conversation.
"We've counted on him heavily this year," Gibson said.
The D-backs famously eschewed star status for grit last winter, and the merits of their offseason moves will certainly be even more scrutinized than they have already if they don't catch the Dodgers or outpace one of the two NL Central runners-up in the Wild Card chase.
But they certainly had good sense to not only retain but extend the man they call Goldy, who, shortly before the start of the season, signed a five-year, $32 million deal that keeps him in Arizona through at least 2017 at what looks to be a bargain rate.
Were the D-backs certain they had a future cornerstone player on their hands when they plucked Goldschmidt out of the eighth round? Not a chance. Nor did they have a guy who felt even the least bit slighted by his Draft status or one who made it his mission to silence the skeptics.
Goldschmidt was simply thrilled with the opportunity.
"I thought the eighth round was pretty good," he said with a laugh. "You know, there are 50 rounds. I went probably where I should have gone. You just try to keep getting better. There are first-rounders and 40-something-rounders that are successful. I got a decent signing bonus [$95,000] that round, and I got an opportunity to go and play every day. In rookie ball, I was in the lineup every day. In high-A, I played every day but two or three games. In Double-A, I had maybe one day off. To get those opportunities is huge, because sometimes guys don't get that."
This is the humble nature that the D-backs rave about. Ask Goldschmidt about that first Major League opportunity that came on Aug. 1, 2011, and you truly understand that, unlike so many top prospects, he never expected anything to be handed to him at this level.
"I had heard stories about guys getting called up and missing their flight and never getting another shot," he said. "So I was like, 'Just get me there.' I was trying to get from Mobile, Ala., to San Francisco. I changed planes three times because of mechanical problems and rain delays. By the time I got to San Francisco, I was so tired I didn't even have a chance to be the guy who can't get any sleep."
One of those flights was a connection from Mobile to Houston. In the midst of a thunderstorm, it was hit by a lightning bolt.
"That," he said, "was crazy."
Crazy and perhaps appropriate. The D-backs caught lightning in a bottle the day they drafted Goldschmidt. And in 2013, he's been as clutch as they come.