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The under-the-radar start of Stephen Piscotty, professional hitter

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When Jason Heyward agreed to a long-term free agent contract with the Cubs this past offseason, an everyday starting spot in right field opened up for the 25-year-old Stephen Piscotty. Given Piscotty's small-sample-sized success in 2015 (133 wRC+ in 256 plate appearances), many fans were excited about 2016, believing that the Cardinals would be just fine in right field, from an offensive standpoint, at least, because we all know and respect Heyward's ability with the glove. One month into 2016, these fans have been correct as Piscotty is quietly putting the finishing touches on an excellent first month of his sophomore MLB season. Weren't it for the torrid start (his 232 wRC+ leads all of baseball) by rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz, Piscotty's hot start would likely be more publicized.

2016 Hitting Statistics

PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
96 10.4% 22.9% .302 .375 .523 139 0.9

A slash line nearing .300/.400/.500 is desirable at any position, but especially a position often reserved for one of the team's best bats. Thus, one cannot complain about Piscotty's first month at the plate in 2016, even if it is sub-Diazian. At the same time, given that Piscotty is only 352 plate appearances into his big-league career and the fact that he swings at pitches out of the zone above the league average (Piscotty: 33.8% versus MLB in 2015: 30.6%), some sort of slump will almost inevitably happen. But until that does indeed happen, there really is no need to discuss the mechanics of it. Instead, let's take a closer look at Piscotty's 2016 up to this point.

2016 Spray Chart (Via BaseballSavant.com)

Piscotty Spray Chart

As you can see, more than half (seven of 13) of Piscotty's line drives have been to center or right field, and as I wrote in the title, this is one of the qualities often viewed in a "professional hitter." As you'd expect, there is the usual cluster of ground balls around shortstop for a right-handed hitter (you will see this same cluster around second base for left-handed hitters), but the rest of the spray chart is relatively balanced. Sure, Piscotty pulls the ball most often, but that is the norm for any non-slap hitter, and plus, his pull rate is not nearly as drastic as say, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays.

Slugging Percentage Heatmap (Via BrooksBaseball.net)

Piscotty SLG

Again, one must remember the usual April sample-size disclaimer, but through the first month of the season, Piscotty has done a tremendous job at making the most of pitches in the strike zone, just as he did in 2015. As I pointed out above, this is important when you consider he is swinging at pitches out of the zone more frequently than the league average at this point in his career.

One would never recommend routinely swinging at pitches out of the zone, but if Piscotty is taking care of the pitches he sees in the zone, there remains a chance of offsetting the difference in ineffectiveness seen on pitches out of the zone. Either way, Piscotty's O-Swing% (swing rate on pitches outside of the zone) is a statistic I would keep a close eye on going forward, especially as he gains even more comfort with MLB pitching and on the flip side, as MLB pitching fine-tunes its adjustments to his tendencies. The one zone to focus on in particular is the area below the strike zone as this is where Piscotty has struggled the most, leading to a great deal of swings and misses.

Bottom Line

Just as everyone could have predicted, one month into 2016, the Cardinals lead the league in wRC+ at 123. Hot starts from Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker have played a vital role in making this a reality. However, what should not go unnoticed is Piscotty's hot start as well. As the team's primary number two hitter, Piscotty's performance at the plate is more important to the Cardinals than both Diaz's and Hazelbaker's. Piscotty may be flying under the radar at the moment, but this isn't necessarily anything new to him as a professional baseball player. As Diaz and Hazelbaker cool off, I'd expect Piscotty's performance to soon come to the forefront.