By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
Yesterday, just before game time, I wrote that Stephen Piscotty must hit seventh or eighth as part of a platoon with Jose Martinez until he regains his swing. Predictably, the Cardinals’ right fielder went 3-for-5 with 5 RBIs and a home run hours later. St. Louis would ride his offensive binge to their third victory of the season, their second in eight games, and the first since April 8th. The results are not coincidence. Dexter Fowler may have the t-shirt, but Piscotty carries the load.
As Piscotty goes, so go the Cardinals.
In 2016, his only full season as a big leaguer, Piscotty drove in 85 runs and scored 86. Subtract his 22 home runs to avoid double-counting the times he personally crossed the plate, and the Stanford grad accounted for 149 runs, or roughly 20% of the St. Louis offense as a sophomore. That’s the biggest chunk of run creation on the roster. Matt Carpenter, this year’s feature hitter in the three spot, was runner up with 128 runs, roughly 16% of the Cardinals’ 779 runs scored.
This is not news.
Among all National League hitters a year ago, only Martin Prado (.368) of the Marlins posted a higher batting average with runners in scoring position than Piscotty’s .363. It’s one of the reasons the Cardinals expected Piscotty to anchor an on-base percentage (OBP) onslaught from their top three hitters in the lineup, Fowler, Carpenter, and young phenom Aledmys Diaz. Clog the bases with men who do nothing better than get on base, and then watch Piscotty go to work.
Unfortunately, Piscotty got to work a bit early this year, retooling his swing over the offseason. The impact of that preemptive work turned his spring training at-bats into the big league equivalent of experimental lab work for the studious engineer.
In 53 at-bats – the second-most of any hitter in camp – Piscotty had the second lowest batting average on the spring squad at .153. Yes, that includes the minor league guys. In fact, only Edmundo Sosa posted a lower average (among hitters who actually recorded an average), hitting .143 in just nine at-bats.
His ineffectiveness effectively robbed St. Louis of their clean-up hitter.
Coming into the season, the Cardinals knew they could get on base, deploying two of baseball’s best leadoff men in Fowler and Carpenter one and three in the order, and sandwiching a rookie of the year candidate in Diaz between them. For his part, Diaz slashed .300/.369/.510 in 2016. If you’re counting, that’s switch-right-left in the 1-2-3 spots ahead of Piscotty, then right again for one of the best RBI men in baseball in the four hole.
It was perfect.
And then Piscotty started the season 1-for-9 with zero RBIs in the Cardinals’ first four games. St. Louis went 1-and-3 in that stretch, and their clean-up hitters – including Jhonny Peralta (2), Yadier Molina (1), and Piscotty (1) – went 2-for-13 with six strikeouts and just two RBIs, both on sac flies by Molina. They left a total of seven men on-base.
Piscotty wasn’t hitting, so he didn’t hit clean-up, and when he did hit clean-up, he didn’t hit.
And then he got hit, twice on the elbows and once in the head. The lingering effects combined with a sore knee kept him out of the lineup for two games. Clean-up hitters, mainly Matt Adams, went 1-for-6 with just one RBI in his absence. He returned to the lineup, and the four hole, April 10th. He’s hit nowhere but fourth since.
In Piscotty’s reemergence as the Redbirds’ exclusive clean-up hitter, he’s logged hits in 5-of-13 at-bats, drove in seven, and only struck out twice. If not for poor pitching, the Cardinals could have easily left D.C. with a 2-games-to-1 series victory over one of the favorites to win the National League pennant.
Instead, they’ll have to settle for just one win and a whopper of a consolation prize. The restoration of their much-needed clean-up hitter.
If Dexter Fowler is the ignition that gets things started and Matt Carpenter is the engine that fuels the Cardinals’ extra-base power, Stephen Piscotty is the undisputed transmission that slams the St. Louis offense into gear and makes the whole thing go.
Call Yadier Molina the roster’s irreplaceable player, sure. But after watching Jhonny Peralta and Matt Adams flail away at clean-up in the first two weeks of the season, Stephen Piscotty is clearly St. Louis’ irreplaceable hitter.
Let’s hope his return has come soon enough to help the Cardinals swing their way out of the 3-and-6 hole they’ve dug for themselves in his absence.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.