With Dexter Fowler returning from the disabled list, Stephen Piscotty was sent down to AAA. Do not confuse demotion with disappointment.
Coming into the year, the Cardinals had high expectations for Stephen Piscotty. He was 25 years old, had just received a sizable extension, and was coming off two good seasons. The Cardinals had a good, young core, and he was a big part of it. Piscotty was supposed to man a corner outfield spot and develop alongside Dexter Fowler.
This time, they won’t even get the chance to play together. Fowler returned from a wrist injury last night, and Piscotty packed his bags for Memphis. On the surface, a 26 year-old player going to the minors sounds bad. There certainly isn’t much good about it. However, Piscotty hasn’t had the kind of season that makes you give up all hope. No, that’s the season that Aledmys Diaz was having.
While Piscotty’s overall production dropped, he did make major strides in his plate discipline. Piscotty never had poor plate discipline, but he wasn’t great in that area, either. This year, he increased his walk rate by 4.8 percent. For reference, Yadier Molina walks 4.7 percent of the time. Actually, Piscotty’s improvement in that statistic is greater than the total for more than ten percent of qualified hitters.
None of that means Piscotty is actually having a good season, but he hasn’t been going completely backwards, either. Sure, he is now in AAA when he should be in the majors. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what he has added and what he can still contribute this season.
The Plate Discipline Improvement
Piscotty made a concerted effort to swing less often this year. He is chasing balls outside the zone nearly five percent less often this year compared to last season, but he is also swinging less often inside the strike zone. Because of this, Piscotty is seeing .18 pitches more per plate appearance than he did last year. Seeing more pitches is inherently a good thing, even though the results have been less than perfect.
Piscotty’s improvement in this area is even more impressive because he hasn’t hit the ball as well. Pitchers shouldn’t be pitching around him any more than they were, but Piscotty is finding ways to take pitches and draw walks. Often times, players who take more pitches strike out more often, too. However, Piscotty’s strike out rate has stayed constant.
For the one-third of plate appearances where Piscotty has either walked or struck out, he has done incredibly well. There is more to hitting than just walks and strike outs, but those two statistics are highly predictive of future performance. The focus has been on how the increase in walks hasn’t helped Piscotty become a better player. I think it’s too early to assume that, considering that walk rate and strike out rate stabilize before offensive production does.
The Third True Outcome
Piscotty’s biggest problem this year is his lack of power. After two seasons with an isolated slugging between .180 and .190, Piscotty is sitting at .130. Piscotty is usually right around average in this metric, but this year he is in the bottom quintile. He isn’t even hitting home runs half as often as he did in 2016. Thus, the outfielder is going to AAA.
Home runs are up all around baseball. For some reason, Piscotty is trending the wrong way in this regard. At 26 years of age, Piscotty should be around peak performance, but he isn’t even close. Power is the only part of his game that fell off, but it’s an incredibly important one. Players don’t have that much control over what happens to most balls in play, and home runs both provide the optimal result and take a lot of chance out of the equation.
If Piscotty can work with coaches who know how to increase his power, then the outfielder might thrive again in St. Louis.
Batted Ball Profile
Of course, it isn’t as simple as just hitting more home runs. According to Piscotty’s batted ball profile, he should be struggling this season.
Piscotty’s line drive rate decreased this season, and he has been hitting the ball on the ground more often. His fly ball rate is about the same, so we shouldn’t really expect a huge change in home runs based on that information. Nevertheless, an increase in ground ball rate at this point is concerning. Everyone else is figuring out ways to hit more fly balls. Piscotty apparently didn’t get the memo.
Furthermore, Piscotty isn’t hitting the ball as hard as he did in 2016. Only 44 percent of his balls in play have been hit with an exit velocity greater than 90 miles per hour. Last season, Piscotty hit 51 percent of his balls in play harder than that mark. When hitting the ball harder than 90 miles per hour, Piscotty has a batting average above .470 over the past two seasons. When he goes back to the minors, contact quality will be the point of emphasis for the coaching staff with Piscotty.
Fowler is back
Ultimately, there are some things that Piscotty can work on. However, Piscotty shows enough positives that this is not a lost season for him. In fact, you could make an argument that Piscotty is better than the player returning from injury, Dexter Fowler.
Cardinals option Stephen Piscotty to Triple-A. Amazing. This year they've had to demote Piscotty, Grichuk & Diaz – most of their young core.
— Joe Trezza (@JoeTrezz) August 7, 2017
Fowler is in the middle of one of his worst offensive seasons since 2010, and he is definitely a disappointment. The Cardinals gave him a huge five-year contract in the offseason, and needed him to play good defense and get on base. He has done neither well, but still commands playing time in the outfield.
The Cardinals don’t really have any choices with Fowler. They can’t send him to the minors, and if they try to waive and trade him, he will not get through waivers. Besides, the Cardinals are probably still trying to extract some value from that contract with him on the field. If they bench Fowler, they have to figure out who plays center field with no obvious answer.
They don’t have great options, but it is strange to see Piscotty going to the minors because Fowler is back. Fowler is having the better overall season, but Piscotty might have a more promising outlook the rest of the season. Piscotty probably has a better chance to hit more home runs the rest of the way than Fowler does to improve his defense over the next month and a half.
Given that the Cardinals aren’t likely to make waves in the playoff race, the decision won’t have a huge impact this season. If the Cardinals don’t think they have the coaches in the major leagues to help Piscotty hit more home runs, then they made the right decision. Regardless of what happens, Piscotty made huge strides in his plate discipline this season, and that will help the Cardinals in a big way over the next five seasons.
Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire – USA TODAY Sports