I guess this is a full-blown series now, and why not? The theme kind of fascinates me. In the two previous entries, I’ve covered Jimmy Nelson and Domingo Santana, and today it’s Stephen Piscotty‘s turn. I go to a whole lot of Triple-A games, and those games are packed with guys who are almost — but not quite — ready for the majors. In Nelson’s case, I suggested that an inconsistent release point could pose problems, while Santana needs to rein in his over-aggressive approach.
These are both players that I like a great deal as prospects, but sometimes it’s simply more interesting to think about what’s keeping a guy in the minors, rather than dreaming about his ceiling. And this comes from someone who is admittedly overly forgiving at times; I can find something to like about a crappy college first baseman, for example. I also typically enjoy Nicolas Cage movies, so it’s probably a good idea for me to focus a bit more on the negatives every once in awhile.
But let’s start off in HappyTown, as I discuss what I like about Piscotty. I got my first chance to see him play last week, and it’s clear why he came into 2014 as the No. 3 prospect in the Cardinals’ system. This kid was born to hit a baseball, plain and simple. His mechanics at the plate are nearly flawless; he has a very quiet approach that is the model of consistency and his swing has a smooth, even plane. Take a look at the following video of Piscotty yanking a front-door slider out of the park:
Now, watch as he sits back and flicks a pitch on the outer half back up the middle for a single:
There’s a couple things I really love about Piscotty’s swing that watching these two videos illustrates quite nicely. First, take a look at how quiet he is in the box. His set-up before each swing — in games a month apart — is so completely identical that it almost looks like a repeated animation from a video game. These two videos also give you an idea of his excellent plate coverage; he can barrel up an inside pitch — with loft — just as easily as he can hit a pitch on a rope from the outer black.
Let’s talk numbers a bit, for those of you who enjoy such things. In a 2013 season split between High-A (where Piscotty hit .292/.348/.477) and Double-A (.299/.364/.446), he hit 15 homers, stole 11 bases, and his weighted average was about 30-35% above league-average at both levels. This year, through 64 games in Triple-A, Piscotty is hitting .296/.347/.424, with four home runs and six steals.
Last Sunday’s game showed the full range of Piscotty’s pros and cons at the plate. He showed good patience drawing a six-pitch walk in the first inning, then ripped a first-pitch fastball into the left-center field gap in the fourth. In the fifth, his aggressive approach got the better of him, as he got tied up on an inside fastball, chopping it weakly to third on a 1-0 pitch. His at-bat in the seventh was a total mess, as he chased a slider well off the plate outside, took a belt-high fastball on the outer half and went down swinging on a breaking ball that was low and inside.
This game was a bit of a microcosm of Piscotty’s season thus far, regarding his plate discipline. His swinging strike rate, which was just 6.2% last year in Double-A, is up to a more normal 8.7% this year. Piscotty has been known throughout his professional career as a guy who can extend at-bats by fouling off tough pitches, but the move up to more advanced pitching in Triple-A has seen some of those foul balls turn into whiffs — last year, he fouled off 17.2% of the pitches he saw, a rate that has fallen to 14.9% in 2014, a figure that almost identically reflects the increase in swinging strikes.
The leap in his strikeout rate bears this out as well: In 2013, Piscotty carried a 7.8% walk-rate and 9.8% K-rate through 471 plate appearances, split between High-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. This year, his walk rate has fallen to a paltry 5.3%, while his K-rate has jumped to 14.5% with Triple-A Memphis.
Another issue is his power production, as his isolated power has dropped from .185 in High-A, to .147 in Double-A and now to .128 in Triple-A. Just from looking at his large frame (6’3″, 210) and watching him take batting practice, I would certainly expect him to develop more home-run power. I don’t see him as a 10-15 HR guy in the long run — I’d wager he’ll hit 20 a year in his prime — but he’s going to have to show it before I go from expecting more power to comfortably projecting more power.
So there you have it. Piscotty looks the part of a major-leaguer, but he’s not one yet, and there are reasons for that (other than the fact that he’s completely blocked at the major-league level). A little more patience at the plate here, a touch more power production there — yeah, then you’ve got an above-average major-league regular for years to come, hopefully as soon as late 2014 or early 2015. That is the art of being almost ready, and Stephen Piscotty has it down to a T.
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