Back in 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games in the regular season and finished with the best record in Major League Baseball. This was in large part due to the work of their veterans: the breakout season of Matt Carpenter, the defense of Jason Heyward, and the excellent pitching from John Lackey, Jaime Garcia, and others.
A big part of their success that year also came from rookie outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, which was quite unexpected at the time.
Grichuk played in 82 regular season games for the Cardinals, clubbing 17 home runs and posting a .877 OPS in 350 plate appearances. Piscotty made his big league debut in July that year, finishing with a .853 OPS in 256 plate appearances. While the rest of the team aged out of their primes, the future looked bright because of the two young outfielders.
Fast forward to 2017 and things have changed quite a bit. Carpenter is now 31 and beginning to exit his prime baseball years. Heyward, Lackey, and Garcia are all gone. The Cards still have talent on their roster, enough to stay in contention in a weak NL Central no team has run away with, but Grichuk and Piscotty have faded.
For Grichuk, the problems have abounded. His .365 BABIP in the 2015 season was well above both his normal rates in the minor leagues and the rate of the average major leaguer. While it has fallen to a more reasonable level the last two years – near .300 – his overall stats have taken a dive.
Grichuk strikes out too much (30.1 percent career), doesn’t walk enough (5.9 percent), and doesn’t play good enough defense to make up for the first two. He still is playing a role in St. Louis, and many might note that he has come around the last few weeks since returning from the disabled list. Since July 21, Grichuk is hitting .301/.329/.589 with five home runs in 76 plate appearances.
This is what he does. Grichuk will go through stretches where he appears to have figured it out just before disappearing for a long stretch. He’s the definition of a streaky player. During his recent hot stretch, his walk percentage has been 3.9 while his strikeout percentage is still up at 30.3. The home runs look good until you realize that 26.3 percent of his fly balls have left the ballpark. That’s an unsustainable rate.
The Cardinals aren’t the only team struggling with a frustrating outfielder. Grichuk and Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber are on strikingly similar career paths.
There are arguments for differences in these players. Schwarber is almost two full years younger and has had almost exactly half the plate appearances. His BABIP (.254) is considerably lower, while his walk rate (13.3 percent) is considerably higher. Grichuk has more consistently made hard contact, and while he’s not stellar in the outfield, he certainly outranks Schwarber in that category.
These two have been enigmas for their respective teams. While the outlook on Schwarber in Chicago is that he’s still a part of the future, it’s fair to question how much longer Grichuk will get in St. Louis to prove he’s an everyday player.
Piscotty, on the other hand, is about six months older than Grichuk and is better in both the walk and strikeout categories. However, when he first came up in 2015, his numbers were also bolstered by an absurd .372 BABIP that wasn’t going to be sustainable. Piscotty got off to a hot start to the 2016 season, hitting .335/.406/.521 through May 21 of that year. After that date he hit just .248/.317/.431, and he carried it into the 2017 season. The Cardinals have sent Piscotty back to Triple-A after posting a .232/.340/.362 slash line in 291 plate appearances.
Unlike Grichuk, Piscotty is an above-average defender in a corner outfield spot. He gets on base, which should help him even when he’s struggling to keep his batting average up. For example, of the eight players getting regular playing time for St. Louis right now, Piscotty’s .340 OBP would be better than four of them.
Of the two players, Piscotty is more likely to have a long future with the team. The Cardinals signed Piscotty to a team-friendly deal to buy out his arbitration years, locking him in through the next five seasons at just $32 million. Grichuk, on the other hand, will be in arbitration for the first time this winter and has three years of control remaining.
With the depth of the Cardinals’ farm system, it’s fair to wonder what the future will look like in the outfield. Harrison Bader is a solid hitter who gets on base at a high rate, has some power, and would be exceptional at a corner outfield spot. He will swing and miss a bit, but the overall future value may be greater than Grichuk’s. Magneuris Sierra doesn’t get on base at the rate to match Piscotty, but his Gold Glove-caliber defense and speed could make him the center fielder of the future — a spot neither Grichuk nor Piscotty are equipped to play.
With Dexter Fowler signed for four more years, the outlook in the outfield is cloudy at best. Once thought as two major pieces in the future of the franchise, it’s hard to know what to expect from Grichuk or Piscotty. If they don’t start showing more consistency on the field, others in the system may begin to pass them by.