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Stephen Piscotty should bat cleanup

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The Cardinals should build their lineup around Stephen Piscotty in the four-spot.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Alex Crisafulli asked, “Is Stephen Piscotty a cleanup hitter?” I’ll concede, with an ISO of .184, Piscotty is not the first player who comes to mind when replacing bats like Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss. Stephen Piscotty fell victim to a little bit of a sophomore slump last season, when his average fell to .247 in the second half. My bet is there was a bit of fatigue playing a full season for the first time, and his average will be steadier in 2017. He can provide the consistency the Cardinals need in the heart of the order. My answer is yes, Stephen Piscotty should bat cleanup.

2017 Projections

The basic part of lineup creation is getting the best hitters the most at-bats. By 2016 standards, the Cardinals have a few on-base machines in Fowler (.393), Carpenter (.380), and Diaz (.369). Each ranked in baseball’s top 30 for OBP (350+ plate appearances); 11th, 19th, and 29th respectively. Those three and Stephen Piscotty will most likely lay claim to the first four spots in the batting order. Below are two sets of projections which provide a framework for player comparisons.

The 2017 PECOTA projections are pretty high on Matt Carpenter, slotting Diaz in as the power player and Fowler as the speediest/most astute on the bases.

Player PA ISO HR SB OBP
Piscotty 600 .165 17 7 .331
Fowler 639 .146 14 15 .355
Diaz 623 .182 21 6 .329
Carpenter 615 .175 17 3 .362

Fangraphs’ Steamer Projections provide the same assessment of Carpenter and Diaz. The biggest discrepancies are Diaz’s five-homer drop and his smaller number of plate appearances, but his ISO is similar. They also have Fowler’s home run total much closer to the others’ average.

Player PA ISO HR SB OBP wRC+
Carpenter 645 .177 18 4 .370 120
Diaz 558 .171 16 7 .342 111
Fowler 609 .139 12 14 .360 107
Piscotty 614 .160 17 7 .333 104

Stephen Piscotty’s stats are nearly identical. Both projections give him a small drop in isolated power, accompanied by a slight drop in OBP. He has the lowest projected on-base percentage and wRC+ of all four players. (Maybe I’m just blinded by my heart eyes, but he has the capacity to outperform these projections.)

The Optimal Lineup

There is a great article over at Beyond the Box Score, “Optimizing Your Lineup By the Book,” which compares and contrasts the “optimal lineup” to the more traditional thinking.

“There are some tips to follow [when constructing a lineup], as Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin showed via extensive research in their book, The Book.”

The conclusions of The Book, discussed in the aforementioned article, illustrate why Piscotty should bat 4th in the lineup as opposed to one of the three earlier slots.

Leadoff

I am a ride-or-die “Matt Carpenter at leadoff” kind of person. With the addition of Dexter Fowler, that may rarely happen at all because he’s the only man on the team proven to be good at stealing bases.

The Book, however, lists speed as a secondary characteristic in a leadoff man. They say “on-base percentage is nice” but this spot should go to “the best hitter without home run power.” The argument can be made that Piscotty belongs in leadoff because of his “above average but unexciting” career ISO of .185. While OBP and general baserunning make leadoff an imperfect fit, Piscotty’s projected ISO is also 20 points above Fowler’s in both Steamer and PECOTA. That comparison suggests he’s better utilized further down in the lineup.

Piscotty’s most glaring deficiency is that he is not adventurous on the bases. It really weighs down his BsR score on Fangraphs, where he posted a -3.4 last season. Piscotty only went from first to third on a single 7 times in 33 opportunities. He had 245 opportunities to steal a base in 2016 and made only twelve attempts. It isn’t the success rate bringing down his score, but how sparingly he tries to advance at all. A leadoff hitter should have speed and be willing to take risks on the basepaths.

Fowler has the second-best OBP in both projections, and ended last season 11th overall for that category. He also has the lowest power of all four candidates, making him the perfect player to bat first. The leadoff spot is Dexter Fowler’s to lose.

The Two-Spot & Three-Spot

Traditionally, the two-spot is the space for a “meh” hitter, a contact guy who can move the leadoff runner over for the upcoming power bat. The Book disagrees with that assessment of the second spot. They say he should have a high OBP because he bats more often than the #3 guy, therefore he should also be the better hitter. High on-base percentage pretty much knocks Stephen Piscotty out of the running, and cements this as the best place for Matt Carpenter who leads the OBP category in both projections and is also top in wRC+.

The third spot in the order is usually the heavy-hitter, the player with the high average who can drive in the leadoff man who is, hopefully, already on base. The Book labeled that a bunch of poppycock, saying:

The #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on than the #4 or #5 hitters. … He comes to bat so often with two outs and no runners on base that the #3 hitter isn't as important as we think.

The #3 spot is important, and Aledmys Diaz would work well there because of his high projected homer total. Since OBP matters more at the second spot in the order, and Aledmys Diaz is projected (by both measures) to hit more home runs than Carpenter or Piscotty, the third spot should go to Aledmys. As Alex pointed out in his article, though:

It seems universally accepted (at least where we stand on February 27) that the top of the lineup will be Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, and Matt Carpenter in that order.

If we’re going by The Book, the Cardinals lineup stands at Fowler / Carpenter / Diaz. This leaves only one player available for that fourth spot.

Cleanup

Sophomore slump aside, Stephen Piscotty hits at a fairly consistent clip. Last year, in fact, he was the National League’s second-best hitter with runners in scoring position. Typically, cleanup goes to the power bats, but The Book’s description of the cleanup spot is simply:

“The best hitter on the team with power.”

Last year Stephen Piscotty had the third-highest average on the team, which is nothing to sneeze at. This position in the lineup doesn’t rely on OBP, so cleanup should go to either Piscotty or Diaz because they have the lowest on-base percentages of the four.

The Book says the #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots.

The case can be made to put Aledmys Diaz in this spot. Whomever is 4th will have at-bats in the most important situations and need to be one of the team’s best hitters. If it comes down to Piscotty or Diaz as their on-base percentages would suggest, St. Louis should go with the proven situational hitter.

The problem is that we don’t know what kind of a hitter Stephen Piscotty really is, with only 905 major league plate appearances. Aledmys Diaz has about half as many (460). Look at the career comparisons:

Player PA OBP K% BABIP wRC+
Diaz 460 .369 13.0% .312 132
Piscotty 905 .348 20.9% .334 120

Their stats are fairly similar considering Piscotty has double the plate appearances. While Diaz’s contact rate is pretty high, Piscotty still has the edge on balls in play. Factoring in last year’s sophomore slump, could Piscotty be even more reliable than these stats lead us to think? Maybe. Could Aledmys Diaz suffer his own sophomore slump this year? Maybe.

Piscotty has been a good situational hitter during the limited time he’s been in the big leagues, so I give him the edge. We can’t know whether Diaz’s 132 wRC+ is sustainable or whether Piscotty’s ISO may finally increase this season. Without knowing how far Diaz’s numbers might regress, Piscotty is the safer bet because the cleanup hitter bats in so many important situations. With him, we know a little bit more of what to expect.

The 5-Spot

The fifth spot is the “wannabe #3.”

After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter [fifth], unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

Piscotty is not home run-reliant, so this would work if he wasn’t such a prime candidate for either cleanup or leadoff. Batting him anywhere below 4th in the order would basically be criminal because he is such a good situational hitter. Unless that part of his approach changes, I think the 5th spot in the order is too far down the lineup.

The Cleanup Hitter

Stephen Piscotty should hit fourth on this team. Last season, the Cardinals over-relied on a power-heavy offense. A consistent bat in the cleanup spot would be a welcome change. They can score more runs by getting more runners on in front of a player who is a proven situational hitter. St. Louis should put Piscotty in the cleanup spot and build the lineup around him. If Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter are in the spots that require high OBP while Diaz acts as the power bat and Piscotty is the situational hitter at cleanup, the Cardinals can maximize the strengths of the top half of their order.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.