ST. LOUIS — Stephen Piscotty, the cerebral and studied hitter from Stanford, brought the Cardinals something the previous bats from Memphis failed to provide this season: consistency.
Greg Garcia, Xavier Scruggs, Dean Anna, Dan Johnson, Ed Easley, Cody Stanley and Tommy Pham all got turns in the bigs this year. While some made serious impressions for a stretch, none matched Piscotty’s dependable production over a lengthy trial.
In 81 at bats, the 24-year-old has 27 hits and is posting a .333/.368/.481 slash line. He’s delivered 11 RBI and scored 10 times. He’s done it while adapting on the fly and being somewhat in the dark when it comes to his competition.
“Seeing all these teams for the first time, it’s hard to say if I’m picking up on a pattern at all. I’m just looking at the scouting reports of how they pitched other guys. I’m sure they’re going to start to try to figure me out, and I’ll try to figure them out. I’m not sure if that’s happening yet since I’m seeing everyone for the first time,” he said.
Piscotty has been thrown into a pennant race in a key role, and while he’s provided with as much information as possible, is succeeding by relying largely on cold reading.
How has he been so dependable? The rookie has incredible pitch recognition and an inherent sense of the strike zone.
(I’m not the only one to mention this. Joe Schwarz over at Viva El Birdos has been touting Piscotty’s abilities in this arena as well.)
Stephen Piscotty has some tremendous pitch recognition, and fans are going to enjoy watching him hit for a very long time.
— stlCupofJoe (@stlCupofJoe) August 13, 2015
A look at the numbers.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Piscotty swings at 49.3 percent of the pitches he sees. When he takes a cut, 72 percent of the pitches he swings at are in the strike zone, compared to 29.7 percent outside of it. The delta, or difference between the two, is roughly 42 percent.
Matt Holliday, whose plate discipline was the subject of a flattering article published on Grantland earlier this year, posts a delta of roughly 48 percent (a spread of 76 percent in the zone, 28 percent out of it). Fellow rookies Joc Pederson and Jung-ho Kang sport deltas of 38 and 35 percent respectively. Mike Trout? 31.
Now Trout can do more with a pitch outside the zone than most players can do with a fastball down Broadway, but for normal human players, to chase non-strikes is to court demotion. Without any experience and absent the kind of power that compensates for mistakes, Piscotty’s swings must be calculated and precise. Pederson may be able to get away with a delta of 38 as a free-swinging power hitter, but were Piscotty to slip that low, he would be back in Triple-A with the other also-rans. (Sometimes even power isn’t enough. Javier Baez, the Cubs’ home-run-hitting infield prospect, posted a delta of just 17 and hasn’t left Iowa since the end of last year.)
While that delta isn’t a comprehensive offensive stat, or even predictive of future success, it does help illuminate Piscotty’s advanced sense of what pitches make good targets.
Yes, he’s extremely intelligent and described by manager Mike Matheny as “a quick study.” He can obviously synthesize scouting reports, first hand accounts and film into a cohesive plan of attack. But despite being armed with intellect and information, the rookie is relying largely on instinct and pitch recognition; two things with which he is naturally blessed.
“There’s a term circling right now, something about paralysis from analysis. I can understand when you start thinking too much. When I feel best at the plate, it’s when I’m just reacting,” he said after Saturday’s 3-hit night. “Some of the best balls I’ve hit, I’ve been looking for another pitch and seen a [different] one that was good.”
In a perfect illustration of his skills, Piscotty laid off two pitches out of the zone Sunday, then waited for the right pitch to arrive for his first MLB home run. It was a convalescence of preparation and reaction, resulting in a 417-foot blast.
He’s also demonstrating an ability to react to pitch types despite having no experience against the pitchers he’s facing. According to Fangraphs, Piscotty’s production is slightly below average on sliders and slightly above average on curveballs. While his sample size is tiny, the numbers still give a sense of his ability to adjust mid-at bat. He’s not getting killed by either pitch, indicating he’s able to recognize and react to breaking balls with some success (.250 average on curveballs, .263 on sliders).
All this adds up to a rookie with uncommon poise and unusual dependability. He has been fooled, but hasn’t looked foolish. He’s made a mistake but never the same one more than once. As time goes on and he’s able to pair his talent with repeated experience, pitchers will find Piscotty more than a singular frustration. He’ll be a recurring nightmare.