When Jason Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs last December 11, Stephen Piscotty instantly became one of the most popular players on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Piscotty had built up a nice cult following during the 2015 season, in which he managed a 133 wRC+ in 256 plate appearances and showed great resilience by working his way back from a gruesome injury (given the target audience of this site, certainly most of you have seen the video to which that link directs, but an additional warning of unpleasantness bears repeating) and back into the lineup six days later, and just eleven days after his horrifying collision with Peter Bourjos, he belted a two-run insurance home run against the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS. That was a more pleasant video to re-watch so I'll go ahead and embed it below.
But while Piscotty always had fans and was never not liked, it was with Heyward's absence that his presence took on a deeper meaning. Some fans felt spurned by Jason Heyward's departure, particularly since he went to the rival Cubs, and even those of us who bore no ill will to Heyward personally could not help but feel excited by the prospect, no matter how unlikely, of Stephen Piscotty rendering the team's 2015 Wins Above Replacement leader redundant.
And so far in 2016, by any measure, Stephen Piscotty has been a better player than Jason Heyward. By each of the three major WAR measures (Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus), Piscotty has at least double Heyward's win total. This has been primarily aided by Piscotty's lethal bat: through his first career 630 plate appearances, Piscotty had a career wRC+ of 135. Jason Heyward's best season at the plate yielded a wRC+ of 134, and that was in 2010. And that three-run home run last night was pretty cool, too.
As Ben Godar noted on Wednesday, Heyward's offensive production has declined since his rookie year in 2010. Piscotty's career numbers are essentially a full season's worth of data, and he has more home runs and a higher on-base percentage than five of Heyward's six seasons, and a higher batting average than in all six. In his first half-dozen years in Major League Baseball, Jason Heyward established himself as a consistently good hitter; in his first year, however, Stephen Piscotty has been a better one.
But Jason Heyward's value was never only a matter of his offensive production. Since entering the league, Heyward has been a premium defensive right fielder. Not only has Heyward led MLB right fielders since he entered the league in 2010 in runs saved by Ultimate Zone Rating, he has more than doubled the totals of Ichiro Suzuki and Josh Reddick, who place second and third by the measure.
Scouting reports on Stephen Piscotty's defense coming up through the minors were somewhat mixed, but they generally gravitated in the vicinity of him being average. Maybe a little bit worse; maybe a little bit better; certainly not as good as Jason Heyward.
The numbers suggest that this has been the case. Piscotty's defensive runs saved were negative in 2015 and positive in 2016, with neither being overwhelmingly convincing.
Since the beginning of 2015, thirty-one right fielders have logged as many innings at the position as Stephen Piscotty (given the presence of Heyward on the Cardinals in 2015, that Piscotty's innings are relatively low should not come as a huge surprise). As his reputation suggests, Heyward is the leader in most of the major defensive statistical categories, such as runs saved by virtue of his lack of errors, runs saved by virtue of his range, and Ultimate Zone Rating.
Stephen Piscotty's defensive metrics are a bit less gaudy. However, and it is worth mentioning again that one year of fielding statistics is hardly enough from which to draw very rigid conclusions, Piscotty has held his own.
- Of the 31 right fielders with as many innings as Stephen Piscotty, he ranks 9th in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games. 10th and 11th are two of the best all-around right fielders in baseball: Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins and Bryce Harper of the Nationals.
- Despite a relatively low number of innings, Piscotty ranks in the top ten in Range Runs. On one hand, it is very rare for a player's range to improve over the years, and there isn't much reason to believe Piscotty will buck the trend, but Piscotty is not a player that one would expect to have considerably above-average range, as despite his team lead in stolen bases, he does not have remarkable speed.
- While Piscotty has been praised for his arm strength by fans and announcers, of the 31 right fielders with at least as many innings as Piscotty, he ranks 26th in outfield arm runs. This could be a matter of circumstance, or a matter of small sample size creating deceptive numbers. While I can easily buy the latter, it would also be unfair to trust the favorable metrics in small samples while disregarding the unfavorable ones.
In the end, if Piscotty continues to hit as well as he has, the only practical value of his defensive metrics from the Cardinals perspective will be in determining where to play him; unless he turns out to be a historically hideous fielder (small sample sizes aside, I'm reasonably comfortable in declaring that he is not that), the club will find a place to hide his glove in order to utilize his bat.
Piscotty has logged innings at three other positions aside from right field: one which falls lower on the defensive spectrum (first base), one which ranks higher (center field), and another which is essentially of the same importance (left field). Piscotty in center field seems to be confined exclusively to extraordinary circumstances: he last played the position on July 4, to accommodate an outfield which also included Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss. If Randal Grichuk and/or Tommy Pham are able to regain the form each showed in 2015 (and have flashed in smaller doses in 2016), the Piscotty-in-CF experiment would serve little purpose.
While Piscotty probably has the skill set to handle first base, it would be a very conservative move by the Cardinals to put him there full-time when the possibility of goodness, if not greatness, elsewhere on the field exists. Based on results to this point, Piscotty should stick in the corner outfield position until further notice.
Ultimately, it's hard to say what Stephen Piscotty will be, since he has surpassed reasonable expectations of him to this point. But he has already shown the bat that even if his defense never comes close to that of Jason Heyward, and it probably won't, he is a very worthy right fielder as a complete package.