Cardinals Add Stephen Piscotty to Their Lineup by Chris Mitchell July 22, 2015 It’s no secret that the St. Louis Cardinals have a pretty good team this year. Their 59-34 record is easily the best in baseball, as are their 98.8% playoff odds. Yet, for all that’s right with the Cardinals, there’s been one gaping hole in their lineup of late: first base. Since Matt Adams‘ season came to an end when he tore his quad in late May, the Cardinals have had a tough time filling the he left void at first base. Most of the plate appearances have fallen to Mark Reynolds, who’s managed just an unspectacular 95 wRC+ from the position. Xavier Scruggs and Dan Johnson have also kicked in a combined 46 plate appearances of sub-80 wRC+ work. To help sure up their first-base situation, the Cards called up prospect Stephen Piscotty, who was hitting a strong .272/.366/.475 in Triple-A Memphis. Although the Cardinals have mostly deployed him as an outfielder in the minors, the plan appears to be for him to slot in at first base for the time being. Unlike many of the guys who have gotten the call over the past couple of months, Piscotty’s not a consensus top-tier prospect. Although he did manage to crack the top 50 in both Baseball Prospectus’ and John Sickels’ mid-season lists. Our very own Kiley McDaniel had him 81st in the preseason. Piscotty’s been an intriguing offensive prospect for a few years now. The Cardinals took him with the 36th overall pick from Stanford in 2012, and he immediately began to prove his mettle in the low minors. He closed out his draft year by hitting .295/.376/.448 in the Low-A Midwest League, on the strength of modest power and an excellent 11% strikeout rate. He performed similarly the following year, splitting time between High-A and Double-A. Once again, he struck out in a mere 10% of his plate appearances, and sprinkled in a bit of power. He also complemented his .295/.355/.464 batting linewith decent speed by swiping 11 bases in his age-22 campaign. Piscotty opened 2014 at the Triple-A level, and many expected he’d find his way onto the Cardinals roster by year’s end. He never got the call, however, as Piscotty’s bat sputtered in his first taste of Triple-A. He made his usual amount of contact, but stopped hitting the ball with any sort of authority. He posted an isolated power of .118, down from .152 and .169 in his first two seasons. Piscotty’s .288/.355/.406 batting line looked good at first glance, but was merely average fot the hitter-friendly the Pacific Coast League. Not very exciting coming from a corner outfielder. As a result, the Cardinals passed over Piscotty for Randall Grichuk and the late Oscar Taveras when they needed outfield help last year. Piscotty returned to Triple-A this season, where he rediscovered his power stroke — and then some. With 41 extra base hits, Piscotty matched his total from all of last season, despite playing less than two-thirds as many games. His .203 ISO is easily his best mark as a pro. His power outburst has coincided with a spike in his walk rate. He’s walked in over 12% of his trips to the plate this season, compared to less than 8% last year. The increase likely had something to do with pitchers beginning to pitch him with caution given his newfound pop. Piscotty’s power surge wasn’t completely unexpected. At 6-3, 210 pounds, he always had a good deal of strength, which is why Kiley McDaniel pegged him for 55 raw power in the offseason. However, prior to this year, Piscotty had trouble getting that power into games. Despite his above-average raw power, Kiley slapped a 35 on his game power heading into the year. Still, he projected Piscotty for 50 in-game power down the road, which equates to 15-18 homers per year. According to Kiley, Piscotty is incorporating a bit more loft in his swing path this year, which explains why his power is finally showing up in games. And according to Piscotty himself, this change hasn’t occurred by chance. It’s the result of a conscious effort to hit the ball with more authority, per a recent interview with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “My goal for each game has really changed,” Piscotty said. “I was really bogged down with hitting for average and getting hits even if they were weak hits. Now, my focus is getting extra-base hits. There are going to be some more strikeouts and that’s part of hitting for power. But I’m piling up the walks. I can see hints of things coming together.” Piscotty’s right that his power and walks have come with more strikeouts. His strikeout rate has ticked up from 11% to 17% between this year and last. However, these strikeouts have been outweighed by the other changes, causing his wRC+ to improve from 100 to 125. Piscotty has improved, but he’s also grown a year older, causing his KATOH forecast to tick down from 3.9 to 3.5 WAR through age-28. As a result, he dropped from 113th to 130th in KATOH’s preseason rankings. But even after this slight downgrade, KATOH still thinks Piscotty’s an intriguing prospect. It’s worth noting, however, that Piscotty’s improvements have also come with a substantial drop in his zone contact rate, which is often a bellwether for a smooth transition to the big leagues. He made contact on an impressive 90% of swings in the strike zone, according to Minor League Central. But as of June 18th of this year, when MLC stopped updating due to technical difficulties, his zone contact rate was just 78%. On average, a guy with a 90% contact rate (2014 Piscotty) can be expected to undershoot his Triple-A wOBA by .050 points, while a guy with a 78% clip (2015 Piscotty) will undershoot by closer to .075. Let’s get some comps up in here. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Piscotty’s performance and every Triple-A season since 1990 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Piscotty’s, ranked from most to least similar. Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28 1 0.34 Beau Allred 156 0.8 2 0.54 Jon Saffer 0 0.0 3 0.61 Bill Masse 0 0.0 4 0.70 Torey Lovullo 549 0.2 5 0.76 Yamaico Navarro* 199 0.0 6 0.77 Brad Nelson 31 0.0 7 0.83 Rob Ryan 70 0.0 8 0.96 Dan Johnson 1,289 2.5 9 0.97 Jeff Clement 421 0.0 10 0.98 Tony Zuniga 0 0.0 11 1.06 Ryan Garko 1,714 1.2 12 1.14 Robin Jennings 86 0.0 13 1.15 Carlos Quentin 2,432 7.2 14 1.24 Joe Hall 31 0.4 15 1.24 Blake DeWitt 1,247 1.9 16 1.27 Cord Phelps 126 0.0 17 1.30 Mitch Moreland 1,744 1.6 18 1.32 Trot Nixon 2,226 11.7 19 1.32 Craig Monroe 1,646 4.2 20 1.35 Jim Gallagher 0 0.0 21 1.42 Matt Stairs 299 0.5 *Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season. And here’s a list containing only players who were primarily outfielders in Triple-A, just like Piscotty was. Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28 1 0.34 Beau Allred 156 0.8 2 0.54 Jon Saffer 0 0.0 3 0.61 Bill Masse 0 0.0 4 0.83 Rob Ryan 70 0.0 5 1.14 Robin Jennings 86 0.0 6 1.15 Carlos Quentin 2,432 7.2 7 1.30 Mitch Moreland 1,744 1.6 8 1.32 Trot Nixon 2,226 11.7 9 1.32 Craig Monroe 1,646 4.2 10 1.42 Matt Stairs 299 0.5 *Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season. As always, there are quite a few flops among Piscotty’s comps. But there are also some powerful hitters mixed in. Although they peaked rather early, Carlos Quentin, Trot Nixon and Craig Monroe were all productive corner outfielders for a time. Matt Stairs was too, although he didn’t really get a chance to play until his age-29 season. These players represent reasonable upsides for Piscotty, assuming his power sticks around. On the defensive side of things, both the scouting reports and the data suggest that Piscotty’s more than adequate in an outfield corner. On the strength of his fringe-average speed and plus arm, he’s been 13 runs better than average according to Baseball Prospectus’ minor league FRAA numbers, with most of that coming from right field. For now, however, Piscotty figures to play most of his games at first base, which is a very new position for him. Piscotty was a third baseman in college, where he also dabbled at first, but that was three years ago now. Since his pro debut in 2012, he’s played a total of six games at first, with all of them coming this year. So there might be a bit of a learning curve there. First base may be at the very low end of the defensive spectrum, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy position to master, especially for someone with so little recent experience. Tell ’em, Wash. (Hat tip to MLB.com for the GIF) There’s plenty to like about Piscotty’s game. He doesn’t strike out much, draws walks, and is finally starting to hit for power. As a corner bat, Piscotty will need to do a lot offensively to stick as a regular. But given his minor league track record, it appears he may have enough offensive talent to pull it off. Steamer forecasts Piscotty for an 88 wRC+ from here on out, which would put him in the neighborhood of replacement level given his defensive limitations. This projection feels a tad low given Piscotty’s Triple-A numbers; but might still be an upgrade over the remains of Mark Reynolds. And if Piscotty’s newfound power proves to be real, he could easily be a league average — or better — hitter right away, giving the Cardinals could have yet another potent bat in their lineup.