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The loud contact of Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty's development at the plate was clear in 2015.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

"Keep your eye clear and hit 'em where they ain't." - Willie Keeler

Soon after the Cardinals lost the 2013 World Series to the Boston Red Sox, I switched gears to offseason mode and emailed a good friend's little brother, who had played baseball at Stanford with Stephen Piscotty.  I wanted an up close and personal scouting report and this is what he had to say:

Steve is a great dude. Makes a ton of solid contact, doesn't K, will gain power with age. Guy has a cannon arm (threw 95 off the bump) but can't throw the ball from third to first to save his life. Decent enough outfielder but would need to start hitting bombs to stay at RF or LF. Regardless of that, he'd absolutely be in the league this year if he was in a less stacked organization than the Cards.

If that sounds familiar it's because it hits all of the key notes we grew used to hearing about Piscotty while he was working his way up the Cardinals' ladder after being drafted with the 36th pick in 2012. Whether he was blocked in a crowded Cardinals' outfield or simply due to a disciplined and methodical player development system, all of Piscotty's 556 plate appearances in 2014 occurred at AAA Memphis.  He hit well (.288/.355/.406), but finished with only nine home runs and an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .118.  Heading into last year, Baseball Prospectus' take on Piscotty in their 2015 annual didn't diverge too far from what his former college teammate said in 2013:

The top prospect in the Cardinals' system, Piscotty impresses with his advanced approach and excellent bat-to-ball skills, but his in-game power has yet to show up with any regularity. The Stanford product is a work in progress in right field, with a strong arm but fringy range that will likely keep him from being better than average with the glove. No one questions his ability to hit, as Piscotty works himself into good counts before making loud contact and should post solid on-base percentages at the highest level. Power is often the last tool to develop, and if Piscotty can learn to loft more of those line shots out of the yard he could grow into a prototypical corner outfielder.

Piscotty began 2015 in Memphis and was finally called up to St. Louis in mid-July 2015 in what felt like an act of grace.  The Cardinals don't win the NL Central in 2015 without Jason Heyward.  I think most of us understand that.  What's equally true is that the Cardinals likely don't hold off both the streaking Pirates and Cubs down the stretch without Piscotty stepping in when Holliday and Grichuk were out indefinitely with injuries.  His impact was obvious, slashing .305/.359/.494 in 256 plate appearances while handling duties primarily in left field, but also right field and first base.

As if taking the early scouting reports personally, he adjusted his swing and the loud contact began to generate power.  Prior to being called up in July, he hit 11 home runs at Memphis in 372 plate appearances - two more than he hit in all of 2014.  Upon arriving in St. Louis he hit seven more, and added three home runs in four NLDS games for good measure.  Piscotty also finished with 15 doubles and four triples, and an impressive isolated power of .190.  He looked immediately comfortable in the batter's box - any sort of learning curve appeared nonexistent - and had solid splits, hitting .299 and .322 versus righties and lefties, respectively.  Like watching a right-handed Matt Carpenter or Mark Grace, he was a constant, credible threat to swing the bat and find a gap.

Unlike Carpenter and Grace, Piscotty's future is not in the infield.  Ideally, Brandon Moss will be the option at first base in 2016 if the Cardinals don't feel comfortable having Matt Adams in the lineup with a lefty on the mound (and with Adams's career .547 OPS vs. lefties they probably shouldn't).  So for all intents and purposes right field now belongs to Piscotty.  He's not going to replicate Heyward in the field - let's get that out of the way right now - but his strong arm gives him more value in right field than probably anywhere else on the diamond.  The question is, does his short stint in 2015 foreshadow whether he'll hit like a desired corner fielder?

It has been noted that it's difficult to find a recent right-handed batter who matches Piscotty's scouting profile, but that he is viewed to be a likely candidate for regression in 2016 should not be surprising.  (Steamer currently projects him to be a one-win player, although that's in just 117 games and he's likely to be more of a regular player with a Heyward-less outfield.)  We all know the grind of a 162-game MLB season is real.  We saw it this past year with Kolten Wong.  In 2015, for the first time in his career, Wong saw over 600 plate appearances and that happened to coincide with a second half batting average that was 42 points lower than his first half.  In recent years we've seen established hitters like Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, and Carlos Beltran fall victim to baseball's grueling season as well.  No one, Piscotty included, is immune.

Furthermore, Piscotty's 2015 hitting profile in the major leagues reflect an aggressive approach - he swung at a high percentage of pitches - but with a contact rate just below the 78.9% league average (stats courtesy of FanGraphs):

Thinking back to watching Piscotty on television this summer and fall, when he did hit the ball he was true to his scouting profile and hit the ball hard.  At least, it seemed that way, and his 2015 stats more or less back that up.  Piscotty had a .372 batting average on balls in play, which is very high and will come down next year, but it doesn't necessarily betray what you'd expect from his skill set.

While Piscotty's line-drive rate (LD%) of 21.2% doesn't jump off the page, it's just a blip above league average, his quality of contact or Hard% (percentage of "hard" hit balls) far exceeded the league average, which is shown here:

Conclusion: This is what was meant by loud contact, and in this case the loud contact was helping Piscotty find holes on the field.  Combine that with his adjusted swing and he may have also discovered the power that had been missing from his profile.

A more comfortable conclusion when we're talking about a sample size just north of 250 plate appearances is that the numbers are all next to meaningless.  I won't argue with that.  But as has been detailed on this website, Matt Carpenter found a power stroke later in his career and more or less reinvented himself as a hitter, leading to murmurs that the Cardinals might move him in the batting order to a spot more befitting his uptick in slugging.  If Piscotty can continue to not only squarely hit the ball but also get on base at a high rate, which he's had a knack for his entire professional career, the void at the top of the lineup could be filled nicely by Piscotty.  And if his power proves not to be fleeting and has indeed arrived with age and development, Piscotty's early returns will look even better heading into 2016.