The debut of any top prospect is an exciting time for both the player and fans and so it should be with Stephen Piscotty. Perhaps briefly lost in the shuffle given the outfield depth the Cardinals have had at the major league level, Piscotty continued to improve his game in Memphis. Extra time in the minors can be frustrating when a prospect appears ready to contribute in the majors, but Piscotty worked on his swing in the offseason and used the extra time in the minors to make himself a more complete hitter. The hitter the Cardinals are getting now is better than the one they would have gotten if they had called him up last season and he is better than the one the Cardinals would have gotten if he had started the season in the majors.
Piscotty worked to improve his power, and the Cardinals' needs combined with his improvement at the plate forced the Cardinals' hand. Piscotty is not spaghetti the Cardinals are flinging at the wall and hoping he sticks. Piscotty is a legit, major-league ready prospect who should be a significant improvement at first base, a position he had some experience with in college, but just started working on again a little more than a week ago.
While the transition to first base is a difficult one, a recent article by Derrick Goold noted that the adjustment to first base is likely not the biggest one Piscotty will have made this season.
"My goal for each game has really changed," Piscotty said. "I was really bogged down with hitting for average and getting hits even if they were weak hits. Now, my focus is getting extra-base hits. There are going to be some more strikeouts and that's part of hitting for power. But I'm piling up the walks. I can see hints of things coming together."
Bernie Miklasz wrote about Piscotty making minor adjustments to his swing in Spring Training earlier this year in the hopes of hitting for a little bit more power after notching just 9 home runs and a .118 isolated slugging percentage (ISO) in 556 plate appearances in Memphis. Much has changed to Piscotty's outlook from this Spring Training report from Derrick Goold just 16 months ago:
Despite a strapping 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame, Piscotty has the swing of a high-average, doubles hitter, not a slugger. He said Thursday that the Cardinals have allowed him to maintain his approach as a "gap to gap" batter and not urged him to become "a guy able to hit 20 homers in a year but also strike out 120 times."
"That's not the player I want to be," Piscotty said.
Even without the power, Piscotty was turning some heads in the Spring of 2014. He was placed on multiple Top 100 Prospect lists after being drafted in the supplemental round in 2012 and receiving a $1.4 million signing bonus. At the end of Spring Training more than a year ago, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had some high praise for Piscotty, comparing the way he impressed at camp to the way Wacha had done so the year before.
"But the way Stephen went about his spring and how he showcased himself, it's very similar (to Wacha). Every spring you have one of those guys and Stephen has been so more than anybody else."
Of course, Piscotty did not receive a callup last season with Randal Grichuk and Oscar Taveras receiving playing time at the major league level while Piscotty posted a solid year at Memphis, albeit without the power that seemed to be available to his frame. Before his 2014 season, Keith Law wrote:
Piscotty has a line-drive approach right now with hard contact to all fields, but he'll show plus pull power in batting practice, and you could see him becoming more comfortable dropping the bat head to drive the ball out to left as the season went on.
The power that had yet to show up games along with his excellent approach at the plate and ability to hit the ball hard still put Piscotty on all the Top 100 prospect lists entering the season. What Piscotty had done prior to this year made him a high-floor prospect, someone who a team could expect average production from. Gaining power without sacrficing the approach gets his ceiling higher, someone who might make an All-Star Game.
The Cardinals and Piscotty appear to have found a happy medium. Mike Matheny said this spring that Piscotty was a player he "enjoyed watching". Piscotty's power showed up immediately in Memphis, with a .214 ISO in April, and that number has remained pretty consistent throughout the season. His strikeouts have gone up this season to around 17%, but that figure is still low for a hitter. He has hit 41 extra base hits so far this season, matching his total for the entire 2014 season. His line on the season now stands at .272/.366/.475 for a .372 wOBA, essentially doing at the Triple-A level what Kris Bryant is doing at the major league level. While Piscotty is not on Bryant's level as a player, he is still an excellent prospect that should be a big help the Cardinals this season and into the future.
While repeating a level at the minors will generally produce better statistics and invite some skepticism, Piscotty at 24-years-old is still young for his level and in most organizations, he would already be on the major league ballclub. Fortunately for Piscotty, additional time in the minors has helped him change his swing and unleash a little bit of the power that he has shown on occasion. To start the season, the Cardinals had Jason Heyward and Matt Holliday at the corners, leaving no spot for Piscotty. The unfortunate combination of Matt Adams' injury and poor production from Mark Reynolds at first base combined with the fortunate development in Piscotty's game caused the Cardinals to try and create a spot for Piscotty, putting him at first base for a week before today's callup.
Expectations for Piscotty are high, and as a hitter, he should be an improvement over the Cardinals first base options so far this year and Gary Larocque, the Cardinals director of player development, noted before this season that Piscotty has hit well almost immediately at every level he has played.
"He goes to each level -- all the way through Triple-A -- and he establishes himself," LaRocque said. "We've seen progress over the course of time. He's gone into each league and hit right away. That's a good indicator that he adjusts quickly. He knows how to win. The young man plays the game well."
All players go through a learning curve at the majors, but Piscotty seems more prepared than most to succeed on arrival. We do not yet know how long Piscotty will be up or how often he will be playing, but it is generally the Cardinals' preference to get good prospects like Piscotty a lot of playing time initially to get them acclimated to the big leagues. First impressions have been important to Mike Matheny in the past and Piscotty has certainly impressed Matheny before. The best-case scenario is that Piscotty comes up and hits right away, giving Matheny confidence to give him a lot of playing time. If Piscotty does not look great out of the gate, hopefully Matheny's positive outlook for Piscotty allow him to play through struggles. Piscotty should deepen a lineup that also just got Matt Holliday back and hopefully improve the bench as Mark Reynolds ideally returns to the role he was signed to play.
While many who don't pay a ton of attention to the Cardinals or take a deeper dive into prospects, Piscotty might be a guy who succeeds and the masses wonder how the Cardinals did it again. 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. The poor production at first base has provided Piscotty an opening, but he deserves to walk through that door.