Stephen Piscotty had been one of my favorite prospects in the system since he was drafted in 2012 -- although our illicit love affair really started when the Cardinals moved him to right field before the 2013 season. His excellent approach and overall batting profile suggested a hitter who would be at least average in the big leagues (if not average for his position) with the potential to become another great all around hitter like Matt Carpenter and Albert Pujols before him.
Holding him back, it seemed, was his power stroke, which loomed as an even larger problem than most previously thought after posting just a .118 ISO in a full season at AAA in 2014. Piscotty felt the same way and went back to Northern California to do tinker with his swing in an attempt to do something about it (H/T Derrick Goold):
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Adding "extension" to a swing is not necessarily a good thing, either in terms of power generation or for maintaining consistent contact rates which is something Piscotty has done really well thus far in his minor league career. When I've seen him swing this year, however, it's not clear to me that he's changed all that much in terms of extension, but more in terms of bat path, as he talked about earlier in the video.
Prior to his swing change, Piscotty had more of an "in to out" path to the baseball, much like a good golf swing: The bat is only in the hitting zone for a short time around the time it makes contact with the ball, and then exits again. This is generally a feature of really great contact hitters, as they have can change the angle of the bat and use the whole field consistently (it's very, very similar to what Jon Jay does now, and is part of the reason why he's become such a good hitter against lefties, imo). Video of this swing.
What Piscotty tried to change was to get the bat to stay in the hitting zone a bit longer, giving him more time to connect with the ball, while also creating some power lag and a higher finish that would help him goose a bit more power out of his swing. This is from just last week, and while the angle is different and there's no slow-mo, you can see the bat path is different, especially where he finishes:
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Now, part of that is where the ball was pitched, certainly, and the change is somewhat slight and hard to see. That slight change, however, seems to have paid some big dividends so far on the young season:
Among Piscotty's 23 hits so far this year, there have been 14 for extra bases: 9 doubles, 1 triple, and 4 home runs. The four homers are particularly impressive for a guy who hit only 9 all of last season in 556 PA's.
Prior to the season, there was plenty of talk about how a slightly higher K-rate for Piscotty might be best for him if it would allow him to generate a bit more power at the plate, and that's basically exactly what he's done thus far, while also boosting his walk rate a couple of points over his career minor league average.
So is this sustainable?
Piscotty's batted ball profile says that it likely is:
Compared with his career numbers, Piscotty has done exactly what he said he was going to do: Generate more lift and hit more fly balls. The surprising thing is that the boost in outfield fly balls has been met with a nearly 1:1 drop in ground ball rate. So Piscotty took all those worm burners he was hitting last year and turned them into fly balls, and is hitting those fly balls out of the yard at a slightly better rate than he was in his career -- and all while hitting slightly more line drives than he was a season ago.
The drop in ground balls might explain the lower BABIP, given that fly balls are turned into outs at a higher rate, but xBABIP tells that if his batted ball distribution is correct, Piscotty should be hitting closer to .295 on balls in play, which would translate much closer to the .280 hitter he's been throughout the minors than where his current batting average stands today.
I still think that it will be the doubles power that eventually manifests itself as Piscotty's greatest offensive asset, and his scatter chart backs this up this assertion:
The homers this season have all been pulled right down the left field line, but his doubles are scattered all over the field, with a good chunk of them to the right field gap and down the right field line. This was the most exciting thing to see after looking at his ISO for this year: It means he hasn't sacrificed his all-field approach to get a bit more pull power in his arsenal.
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We'll see over the next few months if this is truly a lasting change or just a weird small sample size of PA's early in the season, but if it's real, it should go a long way to silencing some of Piscotty's doubters.