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Stephen Piscotty is showing why the Oakland A’s traded for him

He’s the hottest player on the hottest team in baseball.

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The fairest time to analyze a trade in baseball is right when it happens, and in that sense the Stephen Piscotty deal made a lot of sense for both sides. The Oakland A’s were short on starting-caliber outfielders, and the Cardinals had too many to choose from after acquiring Marcell Ozuna. The A’s sent over two expendable prospects from an area of depth, and St. Louis parted with the most superfluous member of their own logjam, all with the extra bonus of sending Piscotty home during a time of great family need. It was as perfect as a swap can be.

It was easy to see what the A’s liked about Piscotty. He was coming off a down year in 2017, amid multiple injuries and the specter of personal tragedy, but the season before that he’d been a budding star at age 25. He got on base and played plus defense, both of which were pressing needs for Oakland, and he also showed some power. With plenty of legitimate excuses to hope his recent slump was a fluke and not the new rule, this was a chance to buy low on a breakout candidate entering his physical prime on a long-term, affordable contract, at a thin position in the organization.

Piscotty, 2016: .273/.343/.457, 116 wRC+, 22 HR, 7.9% BB, 20.5% Ks, 2.5 WAR*

* average of 3.0 bWAR and 2.0 fWAR

For a small-budget team putting the finishing touches on a long rebuild, Piscotty checked all the boxes. Even as someone who didn’t want to spend resources adding veteran hitters, I was on board because the fit was perfect and the price was right.

Of course, things often don’t play out like we expect. Sometimes you acquire a pitcher and he gets hurt, or pay dearly for a top prospect who flames out. The other way to judge a trade is using hindsight to measure the eventual results, and for the first two months of 2018 the Piscotty deal looked like a disaster for the A’s. He was a total zero at the plate, and his defensive metrics were among the worst in MLB at any position. It seemed the A’s had bought a biscotti and ended up with a burnt croissant.

Piscotty, thru 5/27/18: .222/.277/.335, 69 wRC+, 3 HR, 5.8% BB, 19.7% Ks

Through 45 games and 173 plate appearances, there was absolutely nothing to like about his performance. He carried negative WAR, and meanwhile a couple new standouts were emerging in the outfield. The trade was beginning to look like a mistake.

But baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. Even the best players struggle at times, and two months aren’t long enough to draw permanent conclusions. Finally, at the end of May, Piscotty woke up. The hits started falling, the homers started flying, the defense tightened up, and both the numbers and eyeball test agreed that he looked like a completely different player — specifically, like the guy they thought they’d traded for in the first place.

Piscotty, since 5/28/18: .307/.374/.582, 162 wRC+, 9 HR, 8.2% BB, 20.5% Ks

That covers his most recent 43 games and 171 plate appearances. He wasn’t just compiling empty numbers, either. Throughout this stretch he has repeatedly come through in big moments and been a crucial contributor to many victories. To name a few:

  • On June 16 he singled in the go-ahead runs to cap a comeback rally against the Angels.
  • On June 19, with the A’s down to their last strike against the Padres, he launched a homer off superstar reliever Brad Hand to tie it; Oakland won in extras.
  • On June 25 the A’s trailed the Tigers 1-0 in the 7th, and he homered to tie it; the A’s eventually won 5-4.
  • On July 4, he broke a tie in the 8th with a two-run double to beat the Padres.
  • On July 7, he homered in the 11th to break the tie and propel the A’s to victory over the 1st-place Indians.
  • On July 9 against the Astros, he homered in the 7th for the first run of the game, then singled in another in the 8th; the As won 2-0 solely on those two runs.
  • On July 11 against the Astros, he homered (for the fourth game in a row) in the 11th to take the lead, though unfortunately the A’s ended up losing.
  • On July 15 against the Giants, trailing 1-0 in the 4th, he singled in a run to tie the game and help spark the eventual winning rally.

The A’s are the hottest team in MLB entering the second half of the season, and Piscotty is a huge part of that breakout. Check out this list of their best full-time hitters from each of the last two months, ranked by wRC+ (min. 50 plate appearances in June, 40 in July):

# June July
1 Canha (150) Piscotty (193)
2 Piscotty (149) Khrush (149)
3 Lowrie (131) Lowrie (138)
4 Olson (130) Canha (136)
5 Khrush (122) Semien (107)

Table excludes Matt Chapman’s injury-shortened June (195 wRC+), and Chad Pinder’s strong July in half-time duty (214).

By no means has it been a one-man show. The lineup’s collective success and frequent heroics have been a true team effort, with contributions coming from all over. But Piscotty has clearly been at the top of the pack, both in terms of total production and clutchiness. Lowrie was deservedly the All-Star of the group because he’s been doing it all year long (and at a more scarce position), but Piscotty is the one leading this most recent charge.

Where is this resurgence coming from? That’s still unclear, though there are plenty of possibilities. His BABIP is nearly 100 points better in the more recent split (.345), which could be luck or could be a product of a substantial increase in line drives and a small uptick in hard contact. He’s also swinging slightly more and missing slightly less. Or, chalk it all up to the untimely passing of his mother in early May after a long illness, which had deservedly divided his attention earlier in the season as he helped care for her.

To be clear, the point here is not that Piscotty has definitely taken a permanent step forward and will keep hitting like an MVP henceforth. Just as the first two months didn’t repeat themselves, these last two months may end up being the best we ever see out of him. Rather, he’s gone a long way toward reproving himself after struggling for all of 2017 and the beginning of this summer. He once again looks like an average-or-better everyday player, which is especially nice with four years remaining on his contract.

Piscotty, 2016: .273/.343/.457, 116 wRC+, 22 HR, 7.9% BB, 20.5% Ks
Piscotty, 2018: .264/.326/.457, 115 wRC+, 12 HR, 7.0% BB, 20.1% Ks

All told halfway through the season, combining the bad with the good, he’s on pace to almost identically match his 2016 campaign. Considering his best work was also his most recent and is still ongoing, there’s even a chance for further upside at the plate at age 27. His defensive stats may not fully recover this year so his WAR will remain skewed low, but anyone watching the games can see that he’s at least back to average in RF.

The A’s made a shrewd, logical move to acquire Piscotty last winter, and nothing will ever change that. But like any trade it was a gamble, and even the best-laid plans often go awry. The road since then hasn’t been perfectly smooth, but halfway through the summer it’s finally looking like Oakland got the guy they thought they were trading for. That’s one big reason why they’re in postseason contention right now.