2017 will be a year Stephen Piscotty wants to eagerly forget — or perhaps a time where he broke through the mechanism of life and became a legit Major League Baseball talent. The choice is sitting in his lap right now as he starts a fresh stint with the Memphis Redbirds.
He isn't the only St. Louis Cardinals talent to seek refuge in the minor league affiliate; Piscotty follows Randal Grichuk and Aledmys Diaz in Memphis Reloaded missions. Grichuk came back swinging a hot bat that hasn't completely defused just yet and Diaz has picked up the big lumber in the past two weeks with the Triple-A squad.
Can Piscotty find the magic again or will he join Kolten Wong as a player who may have gotten a long term extension with the team a little too quick?
Let's start with a diagnosis of the problems plaguing Piscotty, a hitter who worked extensively on his swing near the end of 2014 and into the 2015 season before his first call-up to the Cardinals. Is it merely a swing issue? Swing mechanics can be the Achilles heel of a hitter making a push through his sophomore season in the pros (don't forget 2017 is just the second full season for Piscotty), making or breaking their chances at ascending to the next level of legit MLB talent.
The pitch that has bedeviled Piscotty this season is one he crushed last year: the fastball. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2017 Piscotty has an above average whiff rate on the fastball (20 percent). That tops the league average whiff rates on breaking pitches and offspeed pitches. Furthermore, Piscotty only has a line drive rate of 4.48 percent off the fastball in 2017, which is extremely low. When you think about fastballs hitting the bat, the exit velocity and likelihood for a line drive should be high for a smart hitter like Piscotty.
But what about the off-field aspect of Piscotty's troublesome year? His mother was diagnosed with ALS earlier this summer, a reveal that Piscotty made himself after a brief stint away from the team that wasn't reportedly connected to an injury. During his time away two months ago, Piscotty simply watched baseball with his mom and took care of her, getting a release from the rigors of a long season.
I'm not a psychologist, but could the ailment that his mother is facing be playing a larger role in his tough year at the plate? Professionals are paid to perform under any circumstance, but these are human beings who deal with all the noise that everyday people do, so some things simply can't be quieted. Piscotty could be figuring out new ways to help his mom or his family as he tries to perform at the highest level in his sport. Maybe the demotion to Memphis can help clear his head.
There was also the trade rumor that came out a couple of days after the July 31 trade deadline, where Ken Rosenthal reported that the Cardinals and Oakland A's were speaking about a deal involving Sonny Gray and Piscotty. Piscotty returned from an injury right around that time and those kinds of rumors and headlines don't escape any player. No matter what they tell the media, players read all the articles with their name in the headline, especially players who are struggling.
Wrap those different issues around a team doing poorly — where reaching .500 on Aug. 7 gets a mini celebration — and the problems are compounded. If the Cardinals were 15 games above .500 and ahead in the division by a safe margin, Piscotty's problems may just be categorized as an adjustment season. During a disappointing season that has seen the Cards routinely watch a backdoor left open by the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers flop open without a charge, Piscotty's problems are highly visible. The same goes for Diaz, a 2016 sensation trying to make his way back to the big club for a little late season dessert.
The numbers don't lie for Piscotty in 2017, though. The .340 on base percentage is a little below 2016's mark, but the slugging percentage of .362 is nearly .100 points below his .457 mark from last season. The batting average is a hair above .230 and the extra-base hit number isn't up to par. All in all, Piscotty's WAR of 0.4 isn't terrible, but isn't stacking up against his 2.9 wins above replacement from last year.
The offensive decline hasn't impacted his steady defense, which has seen Piscotty save the Cardinals six runs in right field with a slightly lower Ultimate Zone Rating than he posted in 2016, but not enough to mark a sharp fall. He isn't the Gold Glover fans want him to be, but his defense hasn't dropped drastically during his plate troubles.
The Memphis demotion may have appeared sudden to the player, but the August numbers weren't supporting a comeback. Piscotty was 3-17 with a single extra-base hit and four strikeouts. Mike Matheny made matters worse by casting the young man in a high profile cleanup position in the lineup, the latest in a series of foolhardy moves by the manager this season. In a 3-2 loss to the Brewers last week, Piscotty went 0-4, leaving many men on base, and making this guy ponder the idea of Jay Bruce in that same spot.
For the time being, Piscotty will play with Memphis, a team having their best season in over a decade. The Cards will ride with Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, and Dexter Fowler in the outfield with Jose Martinez riding shotgun in relief. It would be wise to let Piscotty have the entire month of August to fix the swing or clear out the mechanism in his head on a lower level while still tasting the thrill of a playoff push with the Redbirds.
Can he get it all back? I don't think 2017 will provide that answer. 2018 is where the answer will be revealed. Where a whole offseason can sort out the mental aspect and the swing can perhaps see real introspection. The troubles at the plate and off the field won't suddenly disappear for the 26-year-old first round pick.
While I liked the aggressiveness of the six-year extension handed to Piscotty in April, I will agree that it was a little too sudden. A few days after Carlos Martinez received an extension, Piscotty was handed a long term deal after just one solid season for the Cardinals that few saw coming. I would have placed a bet on that conversation happening after the 2017 season, but John Mozeliak likes handing out those cost-effective deals before their time. Perhaps the simplest answer to Piscotty's troubles is the new contract placed upon his shoulders.
But I think it's more complicated than that. Baseball always is. Only time will tell if Stephen Piscotty gets that loving feeling back in his swing, but I don't think the answer will arrive this year.