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How will Stephen Piscotty fare in his Athletics homecoming?

Evan Davis

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Sep 23, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Stephen Piscotty (55) looks on at the batting cage before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Susan Slusser, the excellent San Francisco Chronicle reporter, recently ran a story about former St. Louis Cardinals and current Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty‘s experience with caring for his ailing mother, who was diagnosed with ALS last year. The story was touching. It revealed that Piscotty cared a lot more about the off-field benefits of the move than whatever he might bring to Oakland between the white lines.

Piscotty is glad to be home, and he has the starting job with the Athletics he would not have had in St. Louis. The question is, what kind of player will Piscotty be as he enters his age-27 season?

The Cardinals’ 2015 campaign saw a slew of quality outfielders emerge from their ranks, but the seasons since have been less kind to certain members of that group. Tommy Pham took a big step back in 2016, but then rebounded and became a six-win player last year. Randal Grichuk was demoted to triple-A two years ago, and is now suiting up for the Blue Jays. Piscotty followed Grichuk’s path. After tallying a 134 wRC+ in 256 plate appearances in 2015, he regressed to a solid but unimpressive hitter in his first full campaign with the Redbirds.

2017 proved an even stranger campaign. Piscotty demonstrated elite plate discipline by walking 13 percent of the time and carrying league average whiff, chase, and strikeout rates to go along with league average contact. The problem was that balls stopped dropping in, and completely stopped going over the fence. His isolated power percentage dropped more than 50 points and only nine air balls went for dingers in 401 plate appearances.

Some bad luck might have emerged. A .286 average on balls in play was a shade below the league average, and his .334 xwOBA set against his .319 raw figure suggested that his contact quality wasn’t being fully rewarded. That .334 xwOBA was the lowest of Piscotty’s career, however, the second time in a row that it decreased from the previous year.

Piscotty’s newfound plate discipline is likely to remain, which will provide some value. He doesn’t offer much with the glove or his legs, so in order to be truly productive, he needs to add pop back into his bat. That may be more difficult than it seems; in an age when everyone is trying to lift the ball into the air, Piscotty hit the fewest fly balls of his career last year. His average launch angle dropped nearly four points to 9.5 degrees. He also posted a career-low average exit velocity of 86 miles per hour. Piscotty is trending in the wrong direction in every imaginable way when he does get the wood on the ball.

This might not completely be Piscotty’s fault. In addition to some bad luck on contact, he also missed a total of six weeks last year thanks to hamstring and groin injuries. The recovery from those knocks may have dampened his production at the plate.

On the other hand, Piscotty’s trendlines from 2016–when he wasn’t injured–don’t augur good things. Steamer currently projects a 105 wRC+ and 1.5 wins of value produced. That may be low, but Piscotty’s ceiling doesn’t appear to push him past league average win totals, especially since he isn’t generating value in the field or on the basepaths.

The A’s probably don’t care too much. They didn’t surrender an elite prospect package to get Piscotty, and they owe only $29.5 million to him over the next five years. Oakland has no intention of competing this year or next year, most likely, and so it has a low-cost, league-average corner outfielder ready to go. Piscotty will keep the payroll low and the major league product semi-respectable.

Most importantly, Piscotty will be able to play mere miles from his mother’s house. Sometimes, it’s not the baseball that matters.

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Evan Davis is a regular contributor to Today's Knuckleball. His work has appeared at BP Bronx, Beyond the Box Score, and Amazin' Avenue. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ProfessorDobles.

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