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My pick to breakout in 2016: Stephen Piscotty

There's some encouraging signs that Piscotty is the real deal

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

You may think taking Stephen Piscotty is a safe pick for a breakout, being that he already had 256 plate appearances of strong production at the plate last year. You may even think he's not eligible for a breakout at all, because last year was the breakout. Indeed, Piscotty batted over .300 last year after getting called up and his Slugging% was nearly .500. However, a big part of those stats was a .372 BABIP. That's 15 points lower than Mike Trout's career BABIP, so you have to imagine that such a high BABIP will come down. In fact, it's high enough that the community here has taken to referring to he and Grichuck as the "BABIP brothers" for how much the two relied on BABIP success last year. I think Piscotty will lose some BABIP, but less than you might expect, and he finishes the year with a higher ISO than last year.

While Piscotty did have a strong season, there are a lot of concerns that he won't be able to follow it up. Despite a 133 wRC+ last year, Steamer projects just a 102 wRC+, with Zips more optimistic at 109. Both projections expect lower BABIPs, lower ISO, and lower strikeouts. To me that's a tell: for players with little major league time, the projections rely mostly on minor league numbers, and in Piscotty's case that involves projecting from a time when he was a completely different hitter.

Back in December, I looked at the 5-man competition for three starting spots, between Brandon Moss, Randal Grichuck, Matt Adams, Tommy Pham, and Piscotty, and I looked at how his batted ball stats changed from his first season at Triple-A to his second:


In the majors Piscotty was not able to get the ball in the air as often, with a total FB% of 33.5% last year, but on the strength of hitting just one pop-up at the major league level he was able to hit outfield fly balls at about the same rate, which is important.

Eno Sarris of Fangraphs interviewed Piscotty on the changes he made to his swing to produce more power. Piscotty's response:

"In the offseason I made an attempt to tap into more power, that was a big offseason goal," the outfielder said before a game with the Giants. In order to do that, the outfielder tried to get a "flatter bat path, not so much down to the ball." The elbows turned out to be a big key. "I worked on getting my back elbow a little closer to my body to get more extension. The whole thing was about getting more extension."

The article also contains a couple of great freeze frames shown side by side that are revealing enough that even a stats guy like me can see the difference:

The one on the left is from 2013, the one from the right is 2015. You can clearly see on the right that Piscotty is in a much better position to produce a fly ball, compared to the left where he's much more so going to straight to the ball rather than getting the bat down into the zone first like in the pic on the right. Sure, these are just one swing from each year, but it does match the narrative that Piscotty himself believes.

It's important for Piscotty to get the ball in the air because he has the raw power to do a lot of damage through the air. Scouts have been convinced of his raw power, but have wondered whether he could adjust his swing to tap into it. For instance, here's John Sickel's take from 2014:

The fact that he's maintained his propensity for contact is a good sign: he isn't over-matched by advanced breaking pitches or plus velocity. The key will be adding more loft to his swing and turning his strength into home run power, but without losing the positive attributes of his approach.

Whether he can do that or not, I don't know.

Piscotty absolutely is tapping into that raw power. For 2015, Baseball Heat Maps had Piscotty at 13th in  Fly Ball and Home Run distance, at 304.69 feet. That puts him in good company with some established leaders in contact quality in Josh Donaldson, Adam Jones, Starling Marte, J.D. Martinez, and Joc Pederson.

Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs noticed not only Piscotty's strong batted ball distance but also noticed that he did very well at a stat he created for calculating xHR/FB, called Average Absolute Angle (AAA). This involves not the exit angle off the bat, but sets the angle of each ball in play (including homeruns), with those at straight center at zero degrees, and the left and right field lines at 45 degrees. That means the higher AAA, the more towards the lines the players hits on average, where the fences are shorter and home runs should occur more often. Podherzer's math, which is based on both AAA and average fly ball distance, puts Piscotty's 2015 performance at a 20% xHR/FB%, much better than his 11.7% rate he put up. Based on this, there's a lot of room for improvement on his .189 ISO from 2015.

Which brings us to another strength of Piscotty: He hits to all fields really well:


The numbers give us a good summation, and this video does a good job of showing it in action. Piscotty goes with the ball really well. Stephen was not selling out for power in order to get that 13th-best average fly ball distance, he simply hits it where its pitched.

I'm not a scouting expert by any means, but based on this analysis I constantly feel like I'm comparing him to Matt Holliday. That is, he's a pure hitter, with great ability to square the ball up and hit to all fields, who also hits for power simply because of said ability to square the ball up combined with raw power. OK, he doesn't have the forearms of Holliday and no, I'm not going to say he'll be the next Matt Holliday, but at the same time, there are quite a few similarities.

Let's look at the plate discipline stats, compared to average:


Piscotty is 6.4% more likely to swing at pitches out of the zone, but he's 10.2% more likely to swing at pitches in the zone, so while he's a little less patient than average, he does still have strong strike zone judgement. He also has a higher Swinging-Strike% than average, and that led to him having a slightly higher than average K%. But, that is part of a conscious trade-off for power. It's certainly a more sustainable profile than say, Randal Grichuk, who had a 35.1% O-Swing% and a 15.6% SwStr%.

Last year, Piscotty became the latest embodiment of the "How do they keep doing it?" Cardinals Draft and Development machine. Due to his real ability to tap into his new found power, while still hitting to all fields and not cratering in the Plate Discipline department, I think this year he establishes himself as a key piece of future St. Louis Cardinals teams going forward.