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Is Stephen Piscotty a cleanup hitter?

Comparing Stephen Piscotty to the rest of the cleanup hitters in the National League

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Their pitching regressed in 2016, but the Cardinals kept their head above water and in the thick of playoff contention partly due to a dramatic increase in slugging. They went from finishing in the bottom half in the National League in 2015 to climbing all the way to number two last season (behind the perpetual slugging Rockies) with their highest team slugging (.443) since the Pujols-Edmons-Rolen days of 2004. So if everything across the board is pretty equal in 2017, they could be in trouble if the bats don’t return.

Recent history isn’t on their side. Between 2007 and 2015, there were 22 non-Rockies teams in the NL to slug at least .420 or higher (this is hardly scientific so I feel fine excluding the Rockies). Although half of these teams still hit the .420 mark the following season, 18 of them saw a decrease in slugging from the previous year and 14 decreased by at least 15 points.

And there will be holes to fill. Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, and to a lesser extent, Jeremy Hazelbaker, and their 60 combined home runs are gone. On a bit of a related note, the Cardinals’ record setting pinch hitting numbers from last season surely won’t be back. I’ve mentioned before that their pinch hitters (.332/.392/.615, 164 wRC+) were basically David Ortiz in 2016, such an outlier that the next best pinch hitting team (Rockies) had a lower wRC+ by 52 points. The Pirates’ pinch hitters were the only other team on the right side of 100.

A regression in performance from the 250 or so plate appearances that Cardinals pinch hitters will see in 2017 probably won’t move the needle all that much, but an uptick in slugging from one of their regular incumbents would certainly be welcome. It seems universally accepted (at least where we stand on February 27) that the top of the lineup will be Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, and Matt Carpenter in that order. Stephen Piscotty in most lineup projections I’ve seen has been penciled in to the cleanup spot where decent slugging is expected and high contact rate to knock in the hopeful runners aboard is a coveted quality, too.

So is Piscotty good for that role?

In 2016, cleanup hitters in the NL slashed .260/.333/.458, good for a wRC+ of 108 along with an ISO of .199 and a .293 BABIP. Last season, in 649 plate appearances, Piscotty hit .273/.343/.457, with a WRC+ of 115. So from these standard numbers he was slightly better than the average cleanup hitter but not by much, and his slugging almost mirrored the rest of the league. By average, he hit for fewer extra bases compared to the field (.184 ISO), and continued to be aided by a high batting average on balls in play (.319).

For batted balls, here are the comparative statistics pulled from FanGraphs Leaderboards. Keep in mind we might not have a complete profile of Piscotty. For instance, line drive rate is said to take over a year and half to stabilize and Piscotty only has 905 career plate appearances under his belt. Nevertheless, I used his careers stats instead of solely last season to capture as big of picture as possible:

Nothing really jumps out here at first. Piscotty is pretty average across the board with line drives, ground and fly balls. At first glance it looks as though he doesn’t give away as many easy infield flies, but that 7.2% is aided by an abnormal 1.7% infield fly ball rate in his 256 plate appearances in 2015. Last season he was at 9.2%, which as you see was higher than the average cleanup batter and all NL batters as whole (8.9%). Lastly, his 14.1% infield hit rate is inordinate and was the highest in the league from 2015-2016 for players with at least 900 plate appearances, let alone those batting fourth.

FanGraphs doesn’t allow a splits search for batting position and plate discipline (at least from what I can tell), but Piscotty’s 76.3% contact rate in 2016 was below the overall league average (78.1%), and ranked fifth on the Cardinals for players with at least 400 plate appearances (behind Yadier Molina, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Holliday).

Bottom line, based on limited employment history, we probably still don’t know exactly what kind of hitter Piscotty is. We’ve read the articles about him shedding the “Stanford swing” and changing his approach at the plate to add more power. Based on how he profiled his first few years in the minors and what we’ve seen since he arrived in St. Louis, it appears to have worked. Still, his stats don’t scream cleanup hitter - a job which might be better suited for Aledmys Diaz if he picks up where 2016 left off, but Diaz’s resume is even more incomplete than Piscotty’s. And this is all fine. We know that Piscotty is an adequate, if not above-average hitter, who anecdotally has appeared comfortable at this level since day one, even with last season’s post-All-Star Break swoon. If he is indeed the cleanup hitter in 2017, it will be interesting to see if another season’s worth of plate appearances tell us if that’s a good spot for him.