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Stephen Piscotty was on the right track before hitting the D.L.

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Some encouraging signs for the recently extended Cardinal.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In the run up to the 2017 season, Cardinals fans everywhere had an opinion on whether or not to extend Yadier Molina. He had just one more guaranteed season left before he and the club would have decisions to make on a mutual option for 2018. Mutual options are rarely exercised by both sides, so there was a feeling that this could be Yadi’s last year wearing the Birds on the Bat.

Molina has been the face of the franchise since Albert Pujols left for the west coast. Not only is he the longest tenured Cardinal, he’s the longest tenured National League player. He’s inextricably tied to the Cardinals. Such a strong connection doesn’t occur often in the modern baseball world where players rarely finish out their careers with team it started with.

At the same time, the success of the Cards over the last seven years or so has had a lot to do with letting aging veterans go in favor of young talent developed in the minors at a much cheaper price. Carson Kelly entered the year with some triple-A experience, and one could easily see Kelly as being MLB-ready by 2018, when Yadi would depart. Relying on Kelly would have been risky, but hey, so is handing out big extensions for aging players.

With so much to consider in extending Molina, we were all a bit blindsided when the team announced an extension for Stephen Piscotty. He still had two years before reaching arbitration, and five before reaching free agency. He’s been a valued contributor, but wasn’t exactly the elite level talent that makes you want to lock him up long-term before he can get a whiff of free agency. At the time I thought the deal was fine, but maybe also that the Cardinals saw something more in Piscotty that we didn’t.

The use of “we” seemingly included Statcast. On Tuesday, I used the Statcast data hosted at Baseball Savant, along with their recently unveiled six qualities of contact, to express pessimism with regards to Aledmys Diaz’s contact quality. In 2017 he has “barreled” the ball less than average, while getting under the ball more than average and “topping” the ball at an average rate. This mostly continued a trend from 2016, making it all the more worrisome.

Piscotty’s contact quality was better than Diaz’s in 2016, but it wasn’t remarkable. Here’s his radial chart from 2016:

If you’re not familiar with this graphic - which is normal as it’s a new feature at Baseball Savant and they’re very good at hiding their many cool features - I gave a lengthy explanation of how to understand them in my Tuesday post on Diaz linked above. I also broke down the six qualities of contact it relies on, how productive each is, and the league average rate of each.

For a short explanation though, the half-disk above is a visual of all possible batted ball combinations of Launch Angle (the vertical angle that the ball leaves the bat at, with 0 degrees parallel to the ground) and Exit Velocity (the speed at which the ball leaves the bat). Each dot then represents each of the hitter’s batted balls. The image has six colored regions, representing the six types of contact quality:

Barrels: the best possible batted balls. Generally they have a 95+ MPH Exit Velocity and are in the air, whether it’s a line drive or a fly ball.

Solid Contact: One notch below Barrels, but on average half as valuable. They basically form a border around barrels.

Flares and Burners: A flare is a high-angled batted ball with low Exit Velocity. A blooper. A Texas Leaguer. A burner is a hard hit ground ball. Neither is really what a hitter should be going for, but they have similarly valuable results to Solid Contact.

Hit Under: These are medium velocity fly balls (between flares and solid contact) and pop-ups (Exit Angle of 50+ degrees). These are the worst performing batted balls.

Topped: These are grounders at low-angles that don’t qualify as burners. The second worst performing batted ball.

Weak contact: This is any batted ball under 60 MPH, and includes bunts. These actually perform at an above-average rate.

Again, for more information check out the linked post above. Breaking down this neat graphic into something more useful and informative, here’s how Piscotty’s contact quality graded out in 2016:

Stephen Piscotty 2016 Contact Quality

Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Under% Topped% Weak%
Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Under% Topped% Weak%
Avg wOBA 1.433 .692 .630 .095 .206 .460
Lg Avg 5.6% 5.1% 25.3% 24.1% 36.1% 3.8%
Piscotty 2016 6.0% 5.1% 23.9% 30.2% 28.2% 6.5%

Nothing that differs too far from average here. He was very slightly above-average in barreling the ball, exactly average in solid contact, slightly below average in terms of flares and burners. He got under the ball much more than average but topped it considerably less than average.

There’s nothing necessary wrong with Piscotty’s contact quality, but it’s a little underwhelming if you were hoping for him to turn into a core player. Piscotty is below average base-runner and defender, and that probably won’t ever change. If he’s going to take a step forward, it’s with the bat.

Now let’s look at 2017:

This image might be a little easier to read since it’s involves less batted balls. The “Hit Under” category looks notably bare, and there’s a cluster of batted balls on the border of “Solid Contact” and “Barrels”. Let’s compare it to 2016:

Stephen Piscotty 2017 Contact Quality

Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Under% Topped% Weak%
Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Under% Topped% Weak%
Avg wOBA 1.433 .692 .630 .095 .206 .460
Lg Avg 5.6% 5.1% 25.3% 24.1% 36.1% 3.8%
Piscotty 2016 6.0% 5.1% 23.9% 30.2% 28.2% 6.5%
Piscotty 2017 11.3% 12.9% 27.4% 11.3% 30.6% 6.5%

Wow. The numbers really break down how great Piscotty’s contact quality were before hitting the D.L. He barreled the ball twice as often as average, and was even better at creating Solid Contact. He got under the ball less than half as often as the MLB average, with a well-below average chance of topping it as well.

Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into great results. Piscotty has a respectable .341 wOBA, which translates to a 109 wRC+, or 9% better than average. Baseball Savant tracks a stat known as xwOBA, which adjusts the on-contact portion of wOBA to the average performance of each batted ball. Our own fearless leader Craig Edwards recently found xwOBA to be more predictive of future wOBA than wOBA itself.

According to xwOBA, Piscotty should of had a .404 wOBA. From eyeballing the leaderboards, in wRC+ terms that’s somewhere in the 140-160 range. In Piscotty’s case, that’s something like a 4-5 win player over a full season. Among the 262 players this year with at least 75 plate appearances, he had the 9th biggest positive difference between his xwOBA and wOBA. It’s also the 15th best xwOBA among those 262 players.

That isn’t the only spot Piscotty has improved upon. He’s also doubled his walk rate from an average 7.9% to a Carpenter-like 16.3%. You can see how from a few plate discipline stats:

Stephen Piscotty Plate Discpline stats.txt

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
2015 32.1 % 73.7 % 43.6 %
2016 33.1 % 75.4 % 45.5 %
2017 25.2 % 67.9 % 39.7 %

Stephen’s O-Swing% (rate of pitches outside the zone that he swung at) and Z-Swing% (swings in the zone) remained steady from 2015 to 2016. Then pitchers started throwing in the zone less to him in 2017. He’s responded by posting his lowest O-Swing%. It’s easy to see how that would rack up the walks. His Z-Swing% has dropped as well, so this isn’t a case of better control of the strike zone. It looks more like a conscious adjustment. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and it’s great to see Piscotty successfully make one here.

We’re still not sure exactly when Piscotty will return to major league games, but it sounds like he should be soon. While he seemed to be having a rather ordinary year, the Statcast data suggests otherwise. Maybe it was just a hot streak in terms of making solid contact. Considering the only moderately good results, it would be a hot streak washed out by the variance of baseball.

Maybe though, it’s the makings of a breakout. His xwOBA is strong enough that he could shrug off a bit of regression and we would still be very happy with the production. If that’s the case, pitchers are going to continue to pitch him less in the zone. I don’t expect him to sustain a 16% walk rate, but he’s shown that he knows how to adjust to that strategy. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve seen the beginning of a new and improved Stephen Piscotty.