Over the weekend, I had the chance to see Stephen Piscotty play a few games at first base in what now turns out to have been the final games before his call-up to The Show. While it's been suggested he could play some DH in the series vs. the White Sox, the question of how long he can hang in St. Louis this season will really hinge on how well he can plug the gaping wound that has been first base.
There's good reason to believe Piscotty's bat could be an upgrade over the Descalsoian numbers Cardinal first basemen have put up this season, but can he handle his new position without being a defensive liability?
As a quick recap, Piscotty was drafted as a 3rd Basemen, but after committing 22 errors in 36 games at the position in 2012, he was moved to the outfield. That's where he remained until about ten days ago.
In six games at the lukewarm corner, Piscotty has had 56 chances and only made one error. Now, that's a ridiculously small sample size to draw any kind of conclusions from. On the other hand, it's already almost half the chances he had at the (admittedly much tougher) hot corner in 2012, and his fielding percentage at first sits at .982 vs. .815 at third. Chances and fielding percentage are not good metrics, especially when comparing one position to another, but these are the numbers we have, and at least there's nothing alarming there as of yet.
The better way to evaluate Piscotty's viability at first base is scouting. Ideally, we want to get the opinion of some grizzled old bird dog, cigar in his mouth, radar gun and clipboard in his lap, his shirt a Jackson Pollack of mustard stains.
Unfortunately, you guys are stuck with me.
Stephen Piscotty is 6'3", 210lbs, and his rangy, athletic frame does not look out of place at first base. This is not a "put a glove on the DH" situation. Given his athleticism, his movements are generally fluid. The only times I spotted anything approaching awkward was as he transitioned from holding a runner to moving into fielding position. His starting and ending positions looked fine, but the transition wasn't always smooth.
The skill set for a first baseman basically breaks down into two things: How much range does he have and can he catch a ball that is hit or thrown his way? In fact, setting aside double-plays, this is exactly what UZR looks at when it rates a first basemen: Range Runs and Error Runs.
Over the weekend, Piscotty demonstrated impressive range on a few different plays.
On Friday night, he chased down a fly-ball in foul territory, deep out into right field, eventually making a Jim Edmonds-style over the shoulder catch as he ran through the Redbirds bullpen. I joked on Twitter that he looked "like an outfielder out there," and of course it was the type of ball he was more likely to see in right field. Still, he covered a hell of a lot of ground and made a very impressive catch.
More significantly, on both Friday and Sunday he ranged deep into the hole after hot-shot ground balls, diving and extending his full frame to get a glove on the ball. I'm talking DEEP into the hole to get these balls, like "Pujols deep," "that was the 2nd baseman's ball" deep.
In fact, on Friday night after he snagged the ball and flipped it to the pitcher for the out, 2nd Baseman Dean Anna stepped over to have a little chat with him. I'm guessing the chat consisted of "I had that one, Bro," as it looked like Anna was positioned to make an easier play of it before Piscotty came flying in. So maybe -1 decision making but +3 for the athleticism to get there at all and make the out.
On a similar play Sunday afternoon, Piscotty again ranged quite impressively into the hole, but only managed to get his outstretched glove on the ball and knock it down. It was rightly ruled a hit, and would have gone out into right field were he not there.
These are just three plays, but in each one Piscotty got to a ball a first basemen would not be expected to get to, and he turned two of the three into outs.
Piscotty committed no errors over the weekend, and again, has only one thus far at first base - a missed catch in his third game. On Thursday night, he was able to complete a pickoff from Catcher Ed Easley. That's always a somewhat unorthodox play that requires good footwork and hands. But again, it's one play.
Whereas I feel like I can accurately say "Piscotty demonstrated good range," I don't feel like I can say anything about how error prone he might be. A major league fielder is expected to be a machine that catches everything hit or thrown to them with nearly 100% accuracy. I saw nothing particularly awkward or stone-handed, but Piscotty has logged nowhere near the number of chances to prove he can achieve the near-perfection required.
I started writing this before news of Piscotty's call-up broke. In that draft, I wrote:
I would guess that if a trade does not materialize by the deadline, we will see Piscotty get a look at first in St. Louis. My prediction - and this is a real shot in the dark - but I believe he will grade out right around zero as a defender, slightly better than average range, but slightly more error prone. If that's the case, that's good news for Piscotty, as his success/failure will ride more on his bat, which has always been strong.
-- Me, like two hours ago
Given the organization promoted him after just six games at first, it seems those Learned Baseball Men were even more impressed by Piscotty's defense than I was. But what they, or I, or anyone else thinks will only matter for a few more hours. Then we will have actual baseball results.
Until then, let's just sit back and enjoy Piscotty's last hit for Memphis, a free-and-easy swing that turned into a stand-up, RBI triple: