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Where does Stephen Piscotty rank among MLB’s top right fielders?

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According to MLB Network, Stephen Piscotty is barely among MLB’s Top 10 Right Fielders. Should he be higher or off the list all together?

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Piscotty was once somewhat lost in the St. Louis Cardinals prospect shuffle. It was a loaded system, granted, and perception of Piscotty never suggested that he would not, say, make the Major Leagues, but entering the 2013 season, Piscotty ranked just 10th among Cardinals prospects, as ranked by Baseball America. He was mostly overshadowed by Oscar Taveras, who played the same position and seemingly was destined to fulfill a similar role to Piscotty, though tragically, this would not be the case.

Piscotty had a solid minor league career, but the club always had depth, particularly at his now-default position in right field. In 2013, it was Carlos Beltran. In 2014, it was Allen Craig, Taveras, and Randal Grichuk. In 2015, it was Jason Heyward.

But despite having a right fielder so productive that he leads Cardinals right fielders in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement this decade despite only playing in St. Louis for one season, Piscotty was able to break onto the Cardinals roster in July of 2015 and became one of the most productive hitters on the team. The team rearranged its lineup in the NLDS to accommodate Piscotty’s bat, starting him twice in right field (with Heyward starting in center field) and twice at first base.

In 2016, while replacing Jason Heyward as the everyday right fielder for the Cardinals, Stephen Piscotty built upon his terrific 2015 debut. Piscotty ranked fifth among right fielders in Baseball Reference WAR. He ranked seventh in FanGraphs WAR. He outpaced some of baseball’s most notable right fielders: by both bWAR and fWAR, Piscotty outranked Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista, Hunter Pence, Carlos Gonzalez, Mark Trumbo, and perhaps most relevantly, Jason Heyward.

On Sunday, MLB Network unveiled its list of the top ten right fielders in baseball today, and Stephen Piscotty ranked tenth. Below is Piscotty’s segment on the special, with Brian Kenny and Carlos Pena running down his case.

Evaluating Piscotty is particularly difficult because his Major League experience is relatively low. Of the ten players on the list, Piscotty ranks 10th in MLB games played and eighth by age (granted, the two players younger than he is are the top two players on the list). Anyway, here is the top ten.

  1. Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
  2. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
  3. Nelson Cruz, Seattle Mariners
  4. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
  5. J.D. Martinez, Detroit Tigers
  6. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
  7. Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
  8. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
  9. Josh Reddick, Houston Astros
  10. Stephen Piscotty, St. Louis Cardinals

Rather than focusing on where these players should rank, I will instead evaluate whether or not he deserves to be ranked ahead of Stephen Piscotty, since he’s the right fielder that I, a narrow-minded and unrepentant beefib, care about exclusively.

Mookie Betts inarguably deserves to be ahead of Piscotty—whether he deserves to be ranked first (he probably deserves to be ranked first) is beside the point. In 2015, Betts was worth 6.0 bWAR and 4.8 fWAR, and in 2016, he was the second-most valuable player in the American League, behind only Mike Trout, by either metric (he was also the second-most valuable player in the AL behind Mike Trout by the metric of “actual MVP voting”, for whatever’s that worth). One can’t even make much of a case that Piscotty has more room to grow in 2017 since Betts is Piscotty’s junior by nearly twenty-one months.

As for Bryce Harper, Piscotty does hold an advantage in 2016 bWAR (while Harper holds the fWAR lead, Piscotty’s bWAR lead is larger). But it would be statistical malpractice to ignore Harper’s MVP season of 2015 or his All-Star campaigns of 2012 or 2013. Or Harper’s all-time elite prospect pedigree. Or that Harper is even younger than Mookie Betts.

Nelson Cruz arguably should not be on the list, as he is a full-time designated hitter, but even if one is to punish his complete lack of defensive value, he is an extraordinary hitter. He led right fielders (or pseudo-right fielders, in some cases) in wRC+ last season and projects highly, at least in the short term, going forward. He turns 37 in July, but given his offensive value, which makes him a projected more valuable player in 2017 by Steamer projections, Cruz should still be above Piscotty.

2016 was easily Giancarlo Stanton’s worst MLB season, and he still hit 27 home runs and had a wRC+ just one point behind Piscotty’s. And this was while battling injuries.

J.D. Martinez had a catastrophically bad defensive 2016 (his true talent seems to be merely “pretty bad defensive right fielder”), but was second to Cruz in wRC+. Since leaving the Houston Astros, he seems to have found new life in Detroit, and unlike Cruz, he figures to age less drastically in 2017, in which he will turn 30 in August.

Jose Bautista, 36 in 2017 and plausibly starting to show visible signs of aging, is the first player that I would at least kinda consider going with over Piscotty. But Bautista may have some flexibility to move down the defensive spectrum (I recognize that this is a list specifically of right fielders, but ranking it as “right fielders who would be the most desirable to have on your baseball team” seems like a fair threshold) and his 122 wRC+ last season, which is lower than his 2017 Steamer projection and his lowest mark since 2009, still surpassed Piscotty’s 2016 mark.

Carlos Gonzalez, Hunter Pence, and Josh Reddick are a somewhat less inspiring group of players—each is a somewhat older player (respectively: 31, turns 34 in April, will be 30 by Opening Day) with fairly average 2016 seasons. Each is also within a standard deviation or so of Piscotty’s fWAR since 2015—Gonzalez and Reddick are at 4.2 wins, Piscotty is at 3.9 wins, and Pence is at 3.6 wins. Of the trio, I have a slight preference towards Reddick, as Carlos Gonzalez was sub-replacement level in 2014 and while more aged results should be regressed more than recent results, they still do count for something; and Pence, by virtue of being the oldest, is the least likely to rebound to a level above average. Whether he should be ranked higher or not, I can at least see the argument for putting Piscotty above all three.

Here are three unranked right fielders who should probably be on this list ahead of Stephen Piscotty:

Kole Calhoun: The Angels right fielder has been baseball’s 6th best since 2015, and since three of the guys ahead of him are Nelson Cruz (DH), Adam Eaton (2017 center fielder), and George Springer (also a 2017 center fielder), he’s actually behind just Harper and Betts by fWAR. His exclusion from this list is downright silly, particularly as Calhoun will be just 29 in 2017, hardly a candidate for severe decline.

Andrew McCutchen: This list was almost certainly compiled before it was confirmed that the longtime Pirates center fielder will be shifting to right for 2017, but regardless, while Cutch had a dramatic offensive dropoff in 2016, and his days of eight WAR seasons are probably numbered with his defensive potential now much lower, he has been too good of a hitter to not prefer over Stephen Piscotty.

Jason Heyward: Sorry.

Actually, no, I’m not sorry. Because there is no shame in Stephen Piscotty, who absolutely had a better 2016 than his predecessor did in his first season with the Chicago Cubs, being a worse player in 2017. He makes nearly $23 million less. As he makes league minimum and is not on a long-term contract, there is no chance that the Cardinals having Stephen Piscotty becomes a long-term albatross. Heyward, despite an atrocious, almost certainly can’t get worse offensive 2016, was still a playable MLB player because he is such a terrific fielder. He has short-term upside that Stephen Piscotty, even if his power surges become even more consistent, does not.

And that’s fine. Stephen Piscotty is, at league minimum, an above-average starting right fielder (if not by a wide margin), and that has tremendous value for the Cardinals. And he can still grow. But for now, I would pump the brakes on putting him in the first or even second tiers of MLB right fielders. Just give him time.