This week should have been exciting for the St. Louis Cardinals and fans. Instead, we received word that Alex Reyes will undergo Tommy John surgery. This is terrible news for Alex Reyes this year and beyond, for the ballclub, and for fans eager to see his next act.
Yet, the reality is that the St. Louis Cardinals were never going to be dependent on Alex Reyes in 2017. He was, at best, entering the season as the fifth starter. He might have been in the bullpen, or he might have started at AAA. So, even with the early loss of Reyes, the Cardinals still expect to contend this season.
Which leads me to Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty will most likely be the St. Louis Cardinals cleanup hitter in 2017. While he lacks the traditional power associated with the position, he’s made up for it with a .372 average with runners in scoring position (small sample size beware).
The Stephen Piscotty to cleanup experiment really began last year. Beginning on May 23rd, he took more than half his plate appearances in the fourth spot in the order. The transition did not go smoothly:
The differences are obvious, but the drivers behind Piscotty’s performance drop are especially noteworthy. His strikeout rate increased 7.5%, his walk rate tumbled 18.7%, and his BABIP dropped more than 100 points.
While a player has some level of control over his K% and BB%, he has less over his BABIP. Fluctuations in BABIP are often attributed to luck. However, using Statcast batted ball data, we can assess a player’s quality of contact. With that information, we can determine with more certainty whether a player was lucky, unlucky, or performing as expected.
Using the data available at Baseball Savant, I binned every tracked batted ball in 2016 by exit velocity and launch angle. I then used that to calculate an expected BABIP (xBABIP) and an expected batting average on contact (xBACON). I also calcuated an expected home runs per HR possible batted ball (xHR/pHR). HR possible batted balls include those hit at launch angles between approximately 14 and 50 degrees, using the lowest launch angle homer and highest launch angle homer as inclusive bounds.
This is best explained visually, so below is the exit velocity (EV) by launch angle (LA) matrix for BACON.
Red areas are where batted balls are most likely to go for hits, and blue areas are where batted balls are least likely to be hits. The blue area at medium exit velocities and fly ball launch angles is the batted ball donut hole. Essentially, these batted balls are generally lazy fly balls, while harder hit balls at those angles go for home runs and weaker hit balls at those angles fall in for bloop hits.
Assigning the tracked batted balls from Stephen Piscotty into these bins, I calculated the following expected stats and compared them to Piscotty’s actually stats, split by the May 22nd/23rd line mentioned above.
As you can see, while differences between Piscotty’s actual stats was large, his expected stats were almost exactly the same. There was a slight dip in xBABIP, xBACON, and xHR/pHR, but those differences would have been almost impossible to notice. The biggest change was that Piscotty went from significantly overperforming his xBABIP and xBACON to significantly underperforming those stats.
This reveals that, despite his worse offensive results, Stephen Piscotty hit the ball just as well in the last two-thirds of the season than he did in the first part. His exit velocities remained extremely steady: prior to May 23rd, Piscotty hit 66.1% of his batted balls 85 MPH or harder. After May 23rd, that number held up at 65.2%.
There was a shift in Piscotty’s launch angle distribution, however. He became slightly more fly ball oriented, which also brought about an increase in popups. This resulted in less low angle groundballs, though, so the difference essentially netted out. In fact, his launch-angle based xBABIP dropped only 8 points, from .340 to .332.
Based on his batted ball quality measured by exit velocity and launch angle combinations, it’s safe to say that Stephen Piscotty still hit well after moving to the cleanup spot. The differences between his actual and expected batted ball stats could have many sources. For one, fielders may have positioned better against him. Additionally, he might have hit more balls right at defenders.
Going forward, Piscotty’s strikeout and walk rates are of more concern. Initially, I thought the change might have resulted from pitchers attacking Piscotty differently in his new spot in the order. However, looking at the pitch mix he saw by month, this was not the case.
Further discrediting this idea is that his K% and BB% were actually worse after May 22nd when he hit anywhere other than the cleanup spot. When he hit cleanup? His K% was 18.1% and his BB% was 8.8%. Not far off his early season numbers.
Stephen Piscotty will be a key to making the St. Louis Cardinals offense go. Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, and Matt Carpenter will set the table for him. His batted ball authority suggests he will deliver.