Stephen Piscotty made major improvements last year, just not in obvious areas. Can he make another leap in his third year of play?

On the surface, Stephen Piscotty’s sophomore campaign was not much better than his rookie year. He slashed .305/.359/.494 as a rookie and .273/.343/.457 in his second season. Adjusting for the fact that Piscotty played fewer games in 2015 than in 2016, those numbers are very comparable. Of course, they also don’t tell the whole story. Piscotty did not improve much at the plate in 2016, but he did make major strides elsewhere.

The Fielding Leap

After 2015, I was not sure if Piscotty had a future in the National League. He just seemed so out of place in the field. Everything hit more than 10-15 feet behind him seemed to go for extra bases, and while he had the speed to keep up, he was not getting good jumps off the bat. His fielding metrics were towards the bottom of the league, and the Cardinals tried him at first base in order to keep his bat in the lineup.

During that same offseason, I wondered if the Cardinals should have tried to trade him. Other Cardsblog writers laughed at my suggestion, and I wouldn’t do that trade now. But I stand by the logic that I used at the time. Piscotty seemed destined for first base, where his offensive contributions would hold less value. He also didn’t really have the look of an offensive juggernaut, so there was a rather low ceiling on his total value. That is, there was a low ceiling until last season.

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In 2016, Piscotty improved his UZR/150 by 12.5 runs in the outfield. That kind of improvement is unheard of. The major jump put Piscotty well into the black for fielding metrics. He wasn’t perfect in the field; his arm is still very weak, which hurts in right field. However, he did show that he can cover a lot more ground than he did in 2015.

If we prorate Piscotty’s 2015 numbers, we can see a leap equivalent to more than one win between his 2015 and 2016 fielding numbers. Most people think about hitting when talking about a young player making “the leap.” Piscotty made “the leap,” but in a different area than where you would look for it.

What About the Hitting?

Now that Piscotty has taken care of his fielding issues, is there room to improve on the offensive side? Well, the answer to that question is a little complicated. The first thing to note is that Piscotty is 26 years old, and hitters usually peak during their age 25 to 26 season. In other words, Piscotty may very well have been playing at his top level last season. Another important note is that Piscotty didn’t really improve at all at the plate in 2015.

Traditional baseball stats guys might argue that Piscotty actually went backwards at the plate in 2015. His batting average dropped by 32 points, and his on-base percentage dropped by 16. On the other hand, it was unreasonable to expect Piscotty to keep up such a high average. If anything, the 16 point drop in OBP represents hope in the sense that his OBP did not experience the same drop that his batting average did.

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Piscotty’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) stood at .372 in 2015. Mike Trout’s career BABIP is .360, and Piscotty is no Mike Trout. .372 was way too high to be sustainable, so we knew that Piscotty’s average would come down, even if his hitting did improve. What I am trying to say is that Piscotty did not get any worse on offense in the slightest.

He merely regressed to the mean with his BABIP, and that caused what appeared to be a small decline. Piscotty’s rate stats for the three true outcomes and most of his batted ball profile stayed the same as it was in 2015, indicating not much difference. The question that still remains is where the possible improvement can come from.

Steamer’s outlook on Piscotty is not so bright. The projection system has the Cardinals’ outfielder pegged for a similar season with less power. The projection isn’t necessarily a bad season, but a .333 OBP would be a disappointment for the 26 year-old. However, the Cardinals coaching staff might be able to tap into some of the strengths that Piscotty has shown thus far in his career a little more in 2017.

Curveball Crusher

For his career, Stephen Piscotty has knocked curveballs out of the park on 3.3 percent of his swings against the pitch. For reference, he gets the same result on 2.7 percent of his swings against fastballs. However, he has much more trouble with change-ups and sliders.

For some reason, Piscotty is able to nail curves without hitting other breaking or offspeed pitches. Opponents will catch on to this soon enough and start taking curveballs out of their repertoires when facing Piscotty. That could be a problem, but Piscotty had a full offseason to work on it.

Coaches know what their players can and can’t do. The Cardinals coaches are well aware of Piscotty’s prowess against curves and his struggles against change-ups and sliders. I am not a hitting coach, but I do figure that the Cardinals have been trying to work with Piscotty on that all offseason. If they can teach him how to alter his approach at the plate in order to better reach those types of pitches, then Piscotty has a shot to make another big leap.

The key is to cut down on the number of whiffs against change-ups and sliders. Piscotty is missing the ball on over 30 percent of his swings against both pitches. He doesn’t miss more than 25 percent of the time against any other pitch that he has seen at least 50 times in his career.

Getting his whiffs/swing rate against change-ups and sliders down to a respectable level would push Piscotty from average to great in terms of strikeout rate. Furthermore, if pitchers don’t have an out pitch against him, then Piscotty will get to see more curves and heaters. There is no reason why he won’t continue to crush those.

Will Piscotty make a second leap? I can’t tell you for sure. The positive is that the Cardinals know where it has to come from. Piscotty showed great strides last year in the field. He has already put in enough work to improve one area of his game.

He shouldn’t have a problem putting in enough work to do it again. This adjustment could prove difficult for the outfielder, but it’s one that he can make. Early on in the season, we will be able to tell if he made the adjustment, and if he is ready for another leap forward in his young career.

Photo credit: Scott Kane – USA TODAY Sports