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Stephen Piscotty’s unsustainable, sustainable performance

Stephen Piscotty had a really high BABIP last year. The BABIP has gone down, but he’s still producing. Here’s how.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last season, Stephen Piscotty stepped up for the Cardinals, hitting .305/.359/.494 with a wRC+ of 133 in 256 plate appearances. The performance turned some heads, as did his three homers in the four division series games against the Cubs. There were some reasons for skepticism heading into the season, particularly a lack of power prior to 2015 and a completely unsustainable .372 batting average on balls in play. However, showing that his power is real while improving his batting eye has made his level of production sustainable.

As for the power, Piscotty’s changes to hit for power are well-documented. When he was called up last year, I discussed the power he had shown in practice that had recently shown up in games, and noted that Piscotty seemed particularly well-positioned to succeed early on in the majors:

While the development of Piscotty has been a positive and a credit to the Cardinals' organization, Piscotty is not following in the mold of Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, or Matt Adams. Piscotty was drafted early, received a big signing bonus and hit the prospect lists after his first full season in the minors. Piscotty has always had a very good approach and hit the ball well. His power is a more recent development.

That power that showed up last season with a .189 ISO has carried over to this season. With 21 doubles, a triple, and ten home runs, his .178 ISO is solidly above average. Projections, factoring in Piscotty’s lack of power in the minors prior to 2015 are still skeptical, with ZiPS putting him at .160 and Steamer giving him a weak .146. You know how people talk about combining stats with scouting? Piscotty is an excellent example of how additional knowledge can help inform statistical projections.

One of the more interesting aspects of Piscotty’s stat line between last year and this year can be seen by looking at his BABIP and his wRC+. As mentioned above, Piscotty had a .372 BABIP and 133 wRC+. This season, Piscotty’s BABIP dropped to .332, yet his wRC+ has remained a nearly identical 128 through Tuesday.

The question perhaps on the mind of some is how can the BABIP go down, the power remain the same, and the production remain the same? Don’t people write all the imte, "once the BABIP goes down..."? Yes, they do, and generally it is the case. However, hitters can make adjustments and compensate. Piscotty has compensated by walking more and striking out less. While going from 21.9% K-rate last year to 17.4% this season and a BB-rate of 7.8% last year to 9.3% this year might not seem like much of a difference, the changes can be significant.

Consider the following:

  • In 600 plate appearances, a difference of 4.5% in the K-rate means 27 more balls get in play, and with a BABIP of .300, that means 8 more hits.
  • In 600 plate appearances, a difference of 1.5% in walk rate means 9 more walks.
  • That means 17 more times on base.
  • If we assume 420 balls in play out of 600, getting on base just 17 more times from above insulates a player from a 40-point drop in BABIP, precisely what Piscotty has done this year.

Contrast that with Randal Grichuk, who posted a similar .365 BABIP last year for a 137 wRC+. He worked to improve his walk rate and decrease his strikeout rate, which should provide him some insulation against a decreased BABIP. Unfortunately Grichuk was also relying on a .272 ISO, and when that number decreased to .185 and his BABIP dropped 100 points, his production went with it. Grichuk’s improved walk and strikeout rates would have allowed him to absorb a 60 point drop in BABIP, but the drop in power provides less breathing room and creates the drop in production.

For Grichuk, a happy medium is a hopeful goal. For Piscotty, it is already a reality. His start has been one of the more impressive over the last decade. A batter rarely ends up doing what he does in his first few months in the majors. The league adjusts and it it is up to the hitter to continue to improve just to maintain previous levels of production.

Piscotty has always had a good hit tool, and his strikeout totals in the majors are beginning to resemble his totals in the minors. The power he has been able to unearth from already-present skills has now been evident for a full year in the majors. A too-high BABIP is generally a good signal that production will come down. A hitter must compensate for that reality by getting better elsewhere to continue hitting at a high level. Piscotty has been able to buck the general trend by adjusting to the majors and becoming a better overall hitter through improving some of his peripheral statistics. Even if he isn’t a big fan of sabermetrics.